On the 29th of July 2023 the Hellenic police announced an investigation into 21 people including members of NGOs involved in supporting asylum seekers arriving in Lesvos. Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, referred to this on Twitter as ‘very disturbing news’ in line with concerning situations she had witnessed while on a visit to the country. She highlighted that ‘baseless investigations against defenders and their use to smear HRDs (Human Rights Defenders) via the media was a major issue’ of concern.
These accusations are not the first made against people working to support people arriving at Europe’s borders to seek asylum. In 2022, Human Rights Watch, commenting on allegations that 10 ‘foreign nationals’, including 4 working for NGOs, had ‘helped migrants enter Greek territory illegally (and) conducted espionage’, accused Greek authorities of ‘using criminal investigations to harass and intimidate groups that investigate abuses against migrants at Greece’s border’. Similarly, in May of this year, the case against Seán Binder and Sarah Mardini continued with them facing ‘charges of espionage and forgery which can carry sentences of up to eight years in prison. In addition… they also face ongoing investigation since 2018 for unfounded felony charges carrying up to 20 years in prison’.
These constant threats and uncertainty prolong the suffering people face. It affects not only those actively involved in the trials, but all humanitarians who wonder if it will be their acts of solidarity that make them the next suspect of the Greek authorities. Another organisation accused of smuggling, the Aegean Boat Report, stated in 2021 that it is ‘not, has never been and will never be a part of any smuggling ring, anywhere on Earth’ and that in fact what they are doing is being forced to step in to fill the role of the Greek State, that ‘prefers to shirk its responsibilities and, worse, to break laws to which Greece is a direct signatory’. In particular, the obligations under international law to protect those entering a territory to seek asylum, to hear their claim for protection, and to not commit acts of refoulement.
Speaking to people working and volunteering on the ‘hotspot’ islands this summer it was highlighted to me that there have been new incidents of criminalisation not only of people supporting people crossing borders to seek safety, such as the Lesvos case cited by Lawlor, but also of people themselves crossing borders to seek safety. In particular, those people assumed to be driving boats are once again being accused of being smugglers, with a number of charges reported in recent weeks. Yet such accusations don’t properly recognise the reality faced by people in this position, and the reality of being forced to use these irregular methods of entering Europe to seek safety. As I Have Rights point out, ‘often, smugglers abandon people at sea, leaving asylum seekers to fend for themselves by driving the boat to safety’. This does not make these people ‘boat drivers’ or ‘smugglers’ as they are accused of in these criminal charges, but rather people trying to protect themselves and others from the risk of losing their lives at sea.
Such an approach of criminalisation has had tragic consequences in the past with people who have lost children at sea accused of endangering the life of their child and being criminally charged, and those who have taken over the role of driving the boat, with the aim of bringing their fellow passengers to safety, accused of smuggling. In the case of Hasan, one of the #Samos2, he was threatened with 230 years in prison for the suspected crime of ‘transportation of 24 third-country nationals into Greek territory without permission (smuggling), with the aggravating circumstances of endangering the lives of 23 and causing the death of one’.
Yet the reality is that anyone in that position would do everything they can to try save the lives of themselves and the people they are travelling with, who are seeking safety inside the borders of the EU. On the day of the verdict in the #Samos2 case in May 2022, Hasan was sentenced to 1 year and 5 months on probation. Achim Rollhäuser, who observed the trial as a member of the European Democratic Lawyers, argued that such a verdict was predictable. Particularly, ‘that Hasan, the boat driver, was convicted. He had to be the scapegoat. A person, a child indeed, had died; this could not go unpunished. Since neither the Greek Coast Guard, nor the Greek State as a whole, nor the EU with its murderous border policy, could be held responsible by the court, the only option was to blame the refugee who steered the boat’.
What each of these cases has in common then, is not the accusations being faced, or the people facing them, many of whom have different experiences, backgrounds and relationships with the borders of the EU. Rather what they have in common is the concerning and ‘disturbing’ trend in which those seeking safety and the people trying to support them are being prevented from doing so, and criminalised in the process, while State and EU actors whose duty it is to offer these protections are not only failing to do so, but are also looking to criminalise those who are trying to fill the gaps they leave behind. As Rollhäuser pointed out, it is the borders themselves and the policies that enforce them that are ‘murderous’, but it is cruelly and intentionally the people who are looking to overcome them who are punished.