by Saba Brittain
On the 10th of January of 2023, the trial of 24 individuals involved in volunteering humanitarian assistance to migrants on the shores of Greece began (Kennedy 2023). This trial appears to follow the trend of European authorities targeting humanitarian workers to discourage solidarity with migrants and deter the arrival of refugees to Europe (Kennedy 2023).
The defendants face serious charges for their work at the Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a Greek non-profit organisation that provides emergency aid in dangerous environments. Operating on the Greek island of Lesbos, the “crimes” committed at the ERCI include assisting people whose lives are at risk, searching and rescuing migrant boats in distress, assisting migrant boats on the shoreline (Kitsantonis 2023).
The defendants are accused of facilitating illegal migration to Europe, these accusations have drawn widespread criticism among international human rights organizations. Their charges include espionage, forgery, involvement in a criminal organization, people-smuggling, money laundering and other “farcical” accusations according to Amnesty International (Kitsantonis 2023).
The accusations of espionage condemn the defendants’ initiatives of monitoring local radio channels to learn the whereabouts of migrant boats in distress. (Smith, 2023). The money-laundering allegations incriminate fundraising efforts for the ERCI organization (Smith 2023).
“I am not a people smuggler”, says Sarah Mardini during an interview with BBC, a human rights activist accused of criminal activity and people smuggling following her lifesaving work at the Emergency Response Centre International (BBC 2018). She is one of the 24 defendants on trial and is herself a refugee from Syria (BBC 2018).
A European Parliament report has described this trial as the “largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe” (Aljazeera 2023). Many other critiques have suggested this trial is indicative of the efforts to discourage the work of migrant rights defenders and organizations, and deter refugees from coming to Europe (Amnesty International 2022). Simply put, the compassion and solidarity driving the action of the volunteers has been weaponized and criminalized (Amnesty International 2022).
In addition to creating a hostile and insecure environment for human rights volunteers showing solidarity to migrants, this trial delays the work of the ERCI organization. A UN human rights expert suggested that a guilty verdict for the defendants could lead to more migrant deaths at sea (OHCHR 2021). Along with this trial in Greece, several other prosecutions have been set in motion across Europe against NGOs and individuals. Considering the thousands of migrant deaths at sea every year, the effects of these sorts of trials must not be overlooked. Many are calling upon Greek prosecutors to drop all charges against the 24 individuals. (Amnesty International 2022).
“Greece: Guilty Verdict for Migrant Rights Defenders Could Mean More Deaths at Sea – UN Expert.” OHCHR, 18 Nov. 2021, www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/01/greece-guilty-verdict-migrant-rights-defenders-could-mean-more-deaths-sea-un.
“Greece: Migrant Rescue Trial to Begin.” Human Rights Watch, 22 Dec. 2022, www.hrw.org/news/2022/12/22/greece-migrant-rescue-trial-begin.
“Solidarity on Trial in Europe.” Amnesty International, 6 May 2022, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2020/03/free-to-help/.
Al Jazeera. “Drop All Charges against Refugee Aid Workers, UN Tells Greece.” Migration News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 13 Jan. 2023, www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/1/13/un-asks-greece-drop-charges-in-syrian-migrant-rescuer-trial.
Kennedy, Niamh. “They Saved Refugees Stranded at Sea. Now They’re on Trial.” CNN, Cable News Network, 10 Jan. 2023, www.cnn.com/2023/01/10/europe/migrant-aid-workers-mardini-binder-trial-intl/index.html.
Kitsantonis, Niki. “Greece Opens Espionage Trial of Aid Workers Who Helped Migrants.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/01/10/world/europe/greece-trial-migrants.html?searchResultPosition=1.
Smith, Helen. “Long-Awaited Trial of 24 Aid Workers Accused of Espionage Starts in Lesbos.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Jan. 2023, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2023/jan/13/long-awaited-trial-of-24-aid-workers-accused-of-espionage-starts-in-lesbos.