My first night in jail was 21 August, 2018. Sharing my cell was an 18-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who was due for deportation to his dangerous country. It was not the kind of solidarity I had expected when I arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos nearly one year earlier.
I came to help with search and rescue operations at sea for asylum seekers within European waters. The next 106 days in a Greek jail taught me that human solidarity ends at Europe’s edge.
Lesvos, close to the Turkish coast, continues to be a primary entry point for asylum seekers, despite the terrors of the sea crossing and horrible conditions in the island’s main camp, Moria, where extreme hardship has caused children to attempt suicide.
When I arrived, I was unprepared for the depth of frustration, contradiction, and complexity in the situation for asylum seekers trapped here. I was more naive than I’d care to admit. But I had also not anticipated the incredible and tireless community, local and international, young and old, skilled and not-so-much, who work to help new arrivals and the thousands of people stuck in the sprawl of over-crowded camps.
A complementing environment
As a diver and first responder trained in maritime search and rescue, I joined the search and rescue branch of Emergency Response Centre International, a non-governmental humanitarian group, registered in Greece. I spent hundreds of hours searching for and responding to refugee boats in European waters. I helped develop standard operating procedures and coordinated both off- and on-shore training programmes available to all volunteers on the southern shore of Lesvos.
Crucially, we did not seek to supplant the authorities, but to complement their over-stretched services. All our activities were cooperative. We informed the port authorities of known refugee boats in the sea. We shared our resources, such as blankets, with vessels from FRONTEX, the European border agency, whose supplies were exhausted, and provided interpreters when the authorities had none.
Yet my colleagues and I are now being charged with felonies including espionage, assisting human-smuggling networks, membership of a criminal organisation, and money laundering. Our prison sentences could span into coming centuries. The smuggling charge alone carries a maximum sentence of 120 years.
One might expect a European member state to back up such grave charges with damning evidence, scrupulously collected. In fact, the police accused me of illegally assisting asylum seekers to come to Lesvos on a night I was actually at the London School of Economics for my graduation. The police allege that on another occasion, I failed to inform the coast guard of a refugee boat, even though cell tower records of my mobile phone traffic prove I called 112 – the official European emergency services – as well as the local office of the coast guard.
Our case files are rife with similar absurdities, but the basic problem is that even though the laws banning ‘illegal entry’ provide an explicit exemption for asylum seekers, the authorities ‘seek to criminalise saving lives,’ as Human Rights Watch said. Amnesty International and investigative journalists have reached similar conclusions.
Humanitarianism is not a crime. It is just necessary. We try to prevent drownings, to provide families with the dignity of clean clothing, to give children access to fun and learning, to support people with basic medical services. But not helping is becoming normalised in Europe.
Populists throughout the EU have misdirected people’s legitimate economic fears by blaming those less fortunate than themselves. By blaming ‘migrants,’ we deny that any are ‘asylum seekers’, and implicitly deny our moral and legal duty to help all people in distress. Whether or not asylum seekers ultimately are granted asylum, following a just process, is up to the EU and its member states. But the incontrovertible fact is, nobody should ever be left to drown.
The incontrovertible fact is, nobody should ever be left to drown.
Prosecutors are acting similarly to my case in at least 46 other such cases across Europe. In January 2016, again on Lesvos, five volunteer lifeguards who responded to an SOS call, saving the lives of asylum seekers at risk of drowning, were arrested and charged with smuggling and, because their rescue equipment included a small knife (necessary in case the ropes become tangled), violation of weapons law. They were ultimately acquitted without detention. My case is part of a wider trend, and also a clear escalation.
The justification offered for criminalising humanitarians is that we act as a “pull factor” for refugee and migration flows to Europe.
In fact, the pull factor is a myth. There is no correlation between the number of refugee boats entering into EU territory and the number of civilian SAR operations. The data simply shows a strong inverse relationship between humanitarian assistance and deaths at sea.
There is no correlation between the number of refugee boats entering into EU territory and the number of civilian SAR operations.
When European policies shut down SAR, the result is not fewer crossings, but more deadly conditions for the people trying to cross. For instance, in 2014 there was a deliberate effort to decrease rescue efforts, while increasing border security to deter refugees from making the journey. Withholding SAR operations did not deter migrant and refugee crossings.
The data vindicate the need for civilian SAR operations but myths die hard. When I met with Health and Crisis Management officials in the European Commission in February, 2019, they spent their time politely avowing their faith in the ‘pull factor,’ instead of asking what led these people to such desperate circumstances in the first place?
In fact Europe’s failure to provide safe and legal alternatives exacerbates smuggling and trafficking networks. People fleeing war and persecution can only hope to be granted refugee status if they’re physically in the host country. If the borders are sealed, asylum seekers are forced to use false papers or seek smugglers’ services.
The deaths of refugees and migrants at sea are the inevitable outcome when Europe shuts down a humanitarian response in favour of a securitised response that effectively pushes refugees toward smugglers, traffickers, and unsafe, over-crowded dinghies.
The most blatant crimes are being underwritten by the same actors who frame SAR as a nefarious threat. By declaring Libya “safe”, in particular, the EU oversees the return of asylum seekers to rape and torture in Libyan detention centres.
People are drowning while politicians claim that avoidable civilian deaths are required for the defense of “European values”. But the values enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union recognise the inviolability of human dignity, and the rights to life, and to physical and moral integrity. The right to asylum and the rights of children to the protection and care necessary for their well-being, are explicit in this Charter, which also sets out the principles of legality and proportionality governing prosecutions.
In my case, the prosecution has reopened the investigation and made technical changes to the charges. In June, I will have to return to Greece and potentially be detained again. My prosecution and detention appear to have added to the intimidation of other civilian search-and-rescue organisations: where I once volunteered, no formal nongovernmental group still provides life-saving services. Among others, a 9-year old girl drowned in the waters between Turkey and Lesvos on February 19: her body wasn’t found and returned to her family for three weeks.