Humanitarian workers acquitted of ‘crime’ of helping refugees
As the judge announced her decision late in the afternoon, there was a pause in the court in Mytilini, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, as translators did their work. Then the packed public gallery erupted. Some 50 cheering and clapping spectators invaded the stuffy court room, pushing aside startled policemen and court officials.
Two humanitarian volunteers from Denmark, Salam Aldeen and Mohammad Abbassi and three from Spain, Enrique Rodríguez, Manuel Blanco and Julio Latorre, arrested on 14 January 2016, had been finally acquitted of the charge of attempting to traffic asylum seekers. The volunteers came from the Spanish PROEM-AID and the Danish Team Humanity, two of the many humanitarian NGOs working to help people arrive safely in Lesbos. The three Spanish volunteers are professional firefighters.
This marks a rare defeat for the policy of criminalizing refugees and humanitarian volunteers. The court is only a few kilometres from the Moria camp where asylum seekers, trapped for months in very poor conditions, remain a continuing reproof to the failings of the EU/Turkey’s ‘deal’ which seeks to block migration to Europe.
Being a volunteer is not criminal
Themistoklis Kefalas, lawyer for the defendants from Team Humanity, said: ‘From day one when they were arrested… and knowing all the details of that case, I was not surprized that they were found ‘not guilty.’
When asked if the case was political, his reply was a smile and a careful lawyerly response: ‘You said it.’
Kefalas said the message of the court’s decision is: ‘That justice works in Greece, first. And secondly, that being a volunteer or trying to help someone who is in danger, is not criminal. Being a volunteer, you are not a criminal.’
Haris Petsikos, the local Greek lawyer for the Spanish defendants, said the prosecution had to show not only the intention to commit the crime but also that the accused had actually started the action. The prosecution had failed on both counts – hence the acquittal. Another charge relating to possession of wire cutters, which are standard issue for all Spanish firefighters, had been dropped before the trial.
‘We worked in teams of six, three in the water, three on land’
Enrique Rodríguez, from Seville, five years a fire-fighter, was one of the defendants, and came to Lesbos as a volunteer at the start of 2016. He was arrested, along with the other volunteers not long after, on 14 January 2016.
Enrique had used his holiday and had paid for the flight and expenses himself. His aim was to help asylum seekers to land safely on Lesbos which is close to the Turkish coast – a point of entry into Greece. Search and rescue at sea is part of the training of Spanish firefighters.
And why Lesbos? ‘At the time when pictures arrived in the Spanish press, drowned people, people who had lost their lives in the sea. [As Spanish firefighters], people who had training in search and rescue at sea, it felt bad, it really affected us.’
PROEM-AID – which carried out sea rescues in Lesbos - is linked to the Spanish firefighting service at a national level, he explained. Saving lives at sea in Lesbos had been his first mission away from Spain.
In Seville, firefighters work a 24-hour shift and then have three or four days off. Overall this works out as the same as the hours of any Spanish public servant. He laughs and says ‘in Greece it was 24, 24, 24… very little rest.’
Normally they worked in teams of six – three in the water and three on land. On that day their boat had technical problems so they had been working together on the beach. They received a message that there was a boat in difficulties with people in the water.
Team Humanity – one of the rescue NGOs – called them to say that they had a rescue boat but had no trained personnel: would PROEM-AID help? They joined the Team Humanity boat, searched for the boat in distress, which they did not find, and were arrested on their way back.
Criminalizing migrants and humanitarian volunteers
European criminalization of humanitarian volunteers started in 2002 with an EU Directive and Framework Document which, required members states to, according to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), ‘criminalise the intentional assistance of illegal entry.’ But, unfortunately, EU states were not required to make a humanitarian exception. Worse, prosecution was not limited only to those cases in which the motive was financial.
‘What is deemed unacceptable here is compassion and solidarity with the rightless non-citizen, the foreigner, the sans-papiers, the perceived border-breaker,’ writes Liz Fekete, the IRR’s director, in the organization’s report 'Humanitarianism: the Unacceptable Face of Solidarity’.
‘Humanitarianism,’ Fekete argues, ‘...has now been constricted, with distinctions made between “us” and “them.”’
Along with the prosecutions throughout Europe, the seizure of NGO life-saving ships is another legal strategy increasingly being deployed against humanitarian volunteer work.
For example, on 17 March 2018, Open Arms, the life-saving ship of the association ProActiva, was seized in Pozzallo, Italy after it had brought 216 people to safety.
The original charge against the organization, according to Statewatch, which monitors states and civil liberties across Europe, was ‘criminal association for the purpose of illegal immigration’. The charge was based on the refusal of Open Arms to return migrants, rescued in open sea, to the Libyan coast guard.
The Libyan commander had reportedly threatened to kill the ship’s crew unless they handed over rescued women and children who, a witness reported, would rather have died than be returned to Libyan hands . As Statewatch acidly points out: ‘It must be stressed that the humanitarian workers accused of ‘criminal association’ have saved over 25,000 people in two years over 43 missions.’
The ship has since been released and it appears that the conspiracy charges have been dropped. However a charge of enabling illegal immigration may still be laid against the ship’s captain and coordinator.
In Lesbos, migrants and asylum seekers have not escaped the policy of criminalization either. On 28 April, a trial of 35 people ended with 32 of them convicted and found guilty of ‘injury to public officials’; although some charges were withdrawn, according to the Lesbos Legal Centre.
The defendants had been arrested in a police raid on Moria camp on 18 July 2017 after a demonstration calling for free movement and a just asylum procedure. Most had spent nine months in prison awaiting the trial. Police witnesses at the trial argued that they were guilty simply by virtue of being present in the African section of the camp after clashes had ended.
On 23 April local people and right wingers staged a violent response to a demonstration by Afghan asylum seekers taking place in the main square of Mytilini. Despite the migrant demonstration being the target of the attack, the Lesbos Legal Centre reported that 122 mostly Afghan asylum seekers now face charges.
While these five acquittals are welcome, Europe appears determined to continue criminalizing humanitarian volunteers and migrants. As one of the now acquitted humanitarian volunteers, Salam Aldeen, asks in a Team Humanity video: ‘What will happen to the world if saving lives becomes a crime?’
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.