• Refugee, volunteer, prisoner: #Sarah_Mardini and Europe’s hardening line on migration

    Early last August, Sarah Mardini sat on a balcony on the Greek island of Lesvos. As the sun started to fade, a summer breeze rose off the Aegean Sea. She leaned back in her chair and relaxed, while the Turkish coastline, only 16 kilometres away, formed a silhouette behind her.

    Three years before, Mardini had arrived on this island from Syria – a dramatic journey that made international headlines. Now she was volunteering her time helping other refugees. She didn’t know it yet, but in a few weeks that work would land her in prison.

    Mardini had crossed the narrow stretch of water from Turkey in August 2015, landing on Lesvos after fleeing her home in Damascus to escape the Syrian civil war. On the way, she almost drowned when the engine of the inflatable dinghy she was travelling in broke down.

    More than 800,000 people followed a similar route from the Turkish coast to the Greek Islands that year. Almost 800 of them are now dead or missing.

    As the boat Mardini was in pitched and spun, she slipped overboard and struggled to hold it steady in the violent waves. Her sister, Yusra, three years younger, soon joined. Both girls were swimmers, and their act of heroism likely saved the 18 other people on board. They eventually made it to Germany and received asylum. Yusra went on to compete in the 2016 Olympics for the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. Sarah, held back from swimming by an injury, returned to Lesvos to help other refugees.

    On the balcony, Mardini, 23, was enjoying a rare moment of respite from long days spent working in the squalid Moria refugee camp. For the first time in a long time, she was looking forward to the future. After years spent between Lesvos and Berlin, she had decided to return to her university studies in Germany.

    But when she went to the airport to leave, shortly after The New Humanitarian visited her, Mardini was arrested. Along with several other volunteers from Emergency Response Centre International, or ERCI, the Greek non-profit where she volunteered, Mardini was charged with belonging to a criminal organisation, people smuggling, money laundering, and espionage.

    According to watchdog groups, the case against Mardini is not an isolated incident. Amnesty International says it is part of a broader trend of European governments taking a harder line on immigration and using anti-smuggling laws to de-legitimise humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants.

    Far-right Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini recently pushed through legislation that ends humanitarian protection for migrants and asylum seekers, while Italy and Greece have ramped up pressure on maritime search and rescue NGOs, forcing them to shutter operations. At the end of March, the EU ended naval patrols in the Mediterranean that had saved the lives of thousands of migrants.

    In 2016, five other international volunteers were arrested on Lesvos on similar charges to Mardini. They were eventually acquitted, but dozens of other cases across Europe fit a similar pattern: from Denmark to France, people have been arrested, charged, and sometimes successfully prosecuted under anti-smuggling regulations based on actions they took to assist migrants.

    Late last month, Salam Kamal-Aldeen, a Danish national who founded the rescue non-governmental organisation Team Humanity, filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, challenging what he says is a Greek crackdown on lifesaving activities.

    According to Maria Serrano, senior campaigner on migration at Amnesty International, collectively the cases have done tremendous damage in terms of public perception of humanitarian work in Europe. “The atmosphere… is very hostile for anyone that is trying to help, and this [has a] chilling effect on other people that want to help,” she said.

    As for the case against Mardini and the other ERCI volunteers, Human Rights Watch concluded that the accusations are baseless. “It seems like a bad joke, and a scary one as well because of what the implications are for humanitarian activists and NGOs just trying to save people’s lives,” said Bill Van Esveld, who researched the case for HRW.

    While the Lesvos prosecutor could not be reached for comment, the Greek police said in a statement after Mardini’s arrest that she and other aid workers were “active in the systematic facilitation of illegal entrance of foreigners” – a violation of the country’s Migration Code.

    Mardini spent 108 days in pre-trial detention before being released on bail at the beginning of December. The case against her is still open. Her lawyer expects news on what will happen next in June or July. If convicted, Mardini could be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.

    “It seems like a bad joke, and a scary one as well because of what the implications are for humanitarian activists and NGOs just trying to save people’s lives.”

    Return to Lesvos

    The arrest and pending trial are the latest in a series of events, starting with the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, that have disrupted any sense of normalcy in Mardini’s life.

    Even after making it to Germany in 2015, Mardini never really settled in. She was 20 years old and in an unfamiliar city. The secure world she grew up in had been destroyed, and the future felt like a blank and confusing canvas. “I missed Syria and Damascus and just this warmness in everything,” she said.

    While wading through these emotions, Mardini received a Facebook message in 2016 from an ERCI volunteer. The swimming sisters from Syria who saved a boat full of refugees were an inspiration. Volunteers on Lesvos told their story to children on the island to give them hope for the future, the volunteer said, inviting Mardini to visit. “It totally touched my heart,” Mardini recalled. “Somebody saw me as a hope… and there is somebody asking for my help.”

    So Mardini flew back to Lesvos in August 2016. Just one year earlier she had nearly died trying to reach the island, before enduring a journey across the Balkans that involved hiding from police officers in forests, narrowly escaping being kidnapped, sneaking across tightly controlled borders, and spending a night in police custody in a barn. Now, all it took was a flight to retrace the route.

    Her first day on the island, Mardini was trained to help refugees disembark safely when their boats reached the shores. By nighttime, she was sitting on the beach watching for approaching vessels. It was past midnight, and the sea was calm. Lights from the Turkish coastline twinkled serenely across the water. After about half an hour, a walkie talkie crackled. The Greek Coast Guard had spotted a boat.

    Volunteers switched on the headlights of their cars, giving the refugees something to aim for. Thin lines of silver from the reflective strips on the refugees’ life jackets glinted in the darkness, and the rumble of a motor and chatter of voices drifted across the water. As the boat came into view, volunteers yelled: “You are in Greece. You are safe. Turn the engine off.”

    Mardini was in the water again, holding the boat steady, helping people disembark. When the rush of activity ended, a feeling of guilt washed over her. “I felt it was unfair that they were on a refugee boat and I’m a rescuer,” she said.

    But Mardini was hooked. She spent the next two weeks assisting with boat landings and teaching swimming lessons to the kids who idolised her and her sister. Even after returning to Germany, she couldn’t stop thinking about Lesvos. “I decided to come back for one month,” she said, “and I never left.”
    Moria camp

    The island became the centre of Mardini’s life. She put her studies at Bard College Berlin on hold to spend more time in Greece. “I found what I love,” she explained.

    Meanwhile, the situation on the Greek islands was changing. In 2017, just under 30,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece, compared to some 850,000 in 2015. There were fewer arrivals, but those who did come were spending more time in camps with dismal conditions.

    “You have people who are dying and living in a four-metre tent with seven relatives. They have limited access to water. Hygiene is zero. Privacy is zero. Security: zero. Children’s rights: zero. Human rights: zero… You feel useless. You feel very useless.”

    The volunteer response shifted accordingly, towards the camps, and when TNH visited Mardini she moved around the island with a sense of purpose and familiarity, joking with other volunteers and greeting refugees she knew from her work in the streets.

    Much of her time was spent as a translator for ERCI’s medical team in Moria. The camp, the main one on Lesvos, was built to accommodate around 3,000 people, but by 2018 housed close to 9,000. Streams of sewage ran between tents. People were forced to stand in line for hours for food. The wait to see a doctor could take months, and conditions were causing intense psychological strain. Self-harm and suicide attempts were increasing, especially among children, and sexual and gender-based violence were commonplace.

    Mardini was on the front lines. “What we do in Moria is fighting the fire,” she said. “You have people who are dying and living in a four-metre tent with seven relatives. They have limited access to water. Hygiene is zero. Privacy is zero. Security: zero. Children’s rights: zero. Human rights: zero… You feel useless. You feel very useless.”

    By then, Mardini had been on Lesvos almost continuously for nine months, and it was taking a toll. She seemed to be weighed down, slipping into long moments of silence. “I’m taking in. I’m taking in. I’m taking in. But it’s going to come out at some point,” she said.

    It was time for a break. Mardini had decided to return to Berlin at the end of the month to resume her studies and make an effort to invest in her life there. But she planned to remain connected to Lesvos. “I love this island… the sad thing is that it’s not nice for everybody. Others see it as just a jail.”
    Investigation and Arrest

    The airport on Lesvos is on the shoreline close to where Mardini helped with the boat landing her first night as a volunteer. On 21 August, when she went to check in for her flight to Berlin, she was surrounded by five Greek police officers. “They kind of circled around me, and they said that I should come with [them],” Mardini recalled.

    Mardini knew that the police on Lesvos had been investigating her and some of the other volunteers from ERCI, but at first she still didn’t realise what was happening. Seven months earlier, in February 2018, she was briefly detained with a volunteer named Sean Binder, a German national. They had been driving one of ERCI’s 4X4s when police stopped them, searched the vehicle, and found Greek military license plates hidden under the civilian plates.

    When Mardini was arrested at the airport, Binder turned himself in too, and the police released a statement saying they were investigating 30 people – six Greeks and 24 foreigners – for involvement in “organised migrant trafficking rings”. Two Greek nationals, including ERCI’s founder, were also arrested at the time.

    While it is still not clear what the plates were doing on the vehicle, according Van Esveld from HRW, “it does seem clear… neither Sarah or Sean had any idea that these plates were [there]”.

    The felony charges against Mardini and Binder were ultimately unconnected to the plates, and HRW’s Van Esveld said the police work appears to either have been appallingly shoddy or done in bad faith. HRW took the unusual step of commenting on the ongoing case because it appeared authorities were “literally just [taking] a humanitarian activity and labelling it as a crime”, he added.
    Detention

    After two weeks in a cell on Lesvos, Mardini was sent to a prison in Athens. On the ferry ride to the mainland, her hands were shackled. That’s when it sank in: “Ok, it’s official,” she thought. “They’re transferring me to jail.”

    In prison, Mardini was locked in a cell with eight other women from 8pm to 8am. During the day, she would go to Greek classes and art classes, drink coffee with other prisoners, and watch the news.

    She was able to make phone calls, and her mother, who was also granted asylum in Germany, came to visit a number of times. “The first time we saw each other we just broke down in tears,” Mardini recalled. It had been months since they’d seen each other, and now they could only speak for 20 minutes, separated by a plastic barrier.

    Most of the time, Mardini just read, finishing more than 40 books, including Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, which helped her come to terms with her situation. “I decided this is my life right now, and I need to get something out of it,” she explained. “I just accepted what’s going on.”

    People can be held in pre-trial detention for up to 18 months in Greece. But at the beginning of December, a judge accepted Mardini’s lawyer’s request for bail. Binder was released the same day.
    Lingering fear

    On Lesvos, where everyone in the volunteer community knows each other, the case came as a shock. “People started to be... scared,” said Claudia Drost, a 23-year-old from the Netherlands and close friend of Mardini’s who started volunteering on the island in 2016. “There was a feeling of fear that if the police… put [Mardini] in prison, they can put anyone in prison.”

    “We are standing [up] for what we are doing because we are saving people and we are helping people.”

    That feeling was heightened by the knowledge that humanitarians across Europe were being charged with crimes for helping refugees and migrants.

    During the height of the migration crisis in Europe, between the fall of 2015 and winter 2016, some 300 people were arrested in Denmark on charges related to helping refugees. In August 2016, French farmer Cédric Herrou was arrested for helping migrants and asylum seekers cross the French-Italian border. In October 2017, 12 people were charged with facilitating illegal migration in Belgium for letting asylum seekers stay in their homes and use their cellphones. And last June, the captain of a search and rescue boat belonging to the German NGO Mission Lifeline was arrested in Malta and charged with operating the vessel without proper registration or license.

    Drost said that after Mardini was released the fear faded a bit, but still lingers. There is also a sense of defiance. “We are standing [up] for what we are doing because we are saving people and we are helping people,” Drost said.

    As for Mardini, the charges have forced her to disengage from humanitarian work on Lesvos, at least until the case is over. She is back in Berlin and has started university again. “I think because I’m not in Lesvos anymore I’m just finding it very good to be here,” she said. “I’m kind of in a stable moment just to reflect about my life and what I want to do.”

    But she also knows the stability could very well be fleeting. With the prospect of more time in prison hanging over her, the future is still a blank canvas. People often ask if she is optimistic about the case. “No,” she said. “In the first place, they put me in… jail.”

    https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/feature/2019/05/02/refugee-volunteer-prisoner-sarah-mardini-and-europe-s-hardening-
    #criminalisation #délit_de_solidarité #asile #migrations #solidarité #réfugiés #Grèce #Lesbos #Moria #camps_de_réfugiés #Europe

    Avec une frise chronologique:

    ping @reka


  • Vu sur Twitter :

    M.Potte-Bonneville @pottebonneville a retweeté Catherine Boitard

    Vous vous souvenez ? Elle avait sauvé ses compagnons en tirant l’embarcation à la nage pendant trois heures : Sarah Mardini, nageuse olympique et réfugiée syrienne, est arrêtée pour aide à l’immigration irrégulière.

    Les olympiades de la honte 2018 promettent de beaux records

    M.Potte-Bonneville @pottebonneville a retweeté Catherine Boitard @catboitard :

    Avec sa soeur Yusra, nageuse olympique et distinguée par l’ONU, elle avait sauvé 18 réfugiés de la noyade à leur arrivée en Grèce. La réfugiée syrienne Sarah Mardini, boursière à Berlin et volontaire de l’ONG ERCI, a été arrêtée à Lesbos pour aide à immigration irrégulière

    #migration #asile #syrie #grèce #solidarité #humanité

    • GRÈCE : LA POLICE ARRÊTE 30 MEMBRES D’UNE ONG D’AIDE AUX RÉFUGIÉS

      La police a arrêté, mardi 28 août, 30 membres de l’ONG grecque #ERCI, dont les soeurs syriennes Yusra et Sarah Mardini, qui avaient sauvé la vie à 18 personnes en 2015. Les militant.e.s sont accusés d’avoir aidé des migrants à entrer illégalement sur le territoire grec via l’île de Lesbos. Ils déclarent avoir agi dans le cadre de l’assistance à personnes en danger.

      Par Marina Rafenberg

      L’ONG grecque Emergency response centre international (ERCY) était présente sur l’île de Lesbos depuis 2015 pour venir en aide aux réfugiés. Depuis mardi 28 août, ses 30 membres sont poursuivis pour avoir « facilité l’entrée illégale d’étrangers sur le territoire grec » en vue de gains financiers, selon le communiqué de la police grecque.

      L’enquête a commencé en février 2018, rapporte le site d’information protagon.gr, lorsqu’une Jeep portant une fausse plaque d’immatriculation de l’armée grecque a été découverte par la police sur une plage, attendant l’arrivée d’une barque pleine de réfugiés en provenance de Turquie. Les membres de l’ONG, six Grecs et 24 ressortissants étrangers, sont accusés d’avoir été informés à l’avance par des personnes présentes du côté turc des heures et des lieux d’arrivée des barques de migrants, d’avoir organisé l’accueil de ces réfugiés sans en informer les autorités locales et d’avoir surveillé illégalement les communications radio entre les autorités grecques et étrangères, dont Frontex, l’agence européenne des gardes-cotes et gardes-frontières. Les crimes pour lesquels ils sont inculpés – participation à une organisation criminelle, violation de secrets d’État et recel – sont passibles de la réclusion à perpétuité.

      Parmi les membres de l’ONG grecque arrêtés se trouve Yusra et Sarah Mardini, deux sœurs nageuses et réfugiées syrienne qui avaient sauvé 18 personnes de la noyade lors de leur traversée de la mer Égée en août 2015. Depuis Yusra a participé aux Jeux Olympiques de Rio, est devenue ambassadrice de l’ONU et a écrit un livre, Butterfly. Sarah avait quant à elle décidé d’aider à son tour les réfugiés qui traversaient dangereusement la mer Égée sur des bateaux de fortune et s’était engagée comme bénévole dans l’ONG ERCI durant l’été 2016.

      Sarah a été arrêtée le 21 août à l’aéroport de Lesbos alors qu’elle devait rejoindre Berlin où elle vit avec sa famille. Le 3 septembre, elle devait commencer son année universitaire au collège Bard en sciences sociales. La jeune Syrienne de 23 ans a été transférée à la prison de Korydallos, à Athènes, dans l’attente de son procès. Son avocat a demandé mercredi sa remise en liberté.

      Ce n’est pas la première fois que des ONG basées à Lesbos ont des soucis avec la justice grecque. Des membres de l’ONG espagnole Proem-Aid avaient aussi été accusés d’avoir participé à l’entrée illégale de réfugiés sur l’île. Ils ont été relaxés en mai dernier. D’après le ministère de la Marine, 114 ONG ont été enregistrées sur l’île, dont les activités souvent difficilement contrôlables inquiètent le gouvernement grec et ses partenaires européens.

      https://www.courrierdesbalkans.fr/Une-ONG-accusee-d-aide-a-l-entree-irreguliere-de-migrants

      #grèce #asile #migrations #réfugiés #solidarité #délit_de_solidarité

    • Arrest of Syrian ’hero swimmer’ puts Lesbos refugees back in spotlight

      Sara Mardini’s case adds to fears that rescue work is being criminalised and raises questions about NGO.

      Greece’s high-security #Korydallos prison acknowledges that #Sara_Mardini is one of its rarer inmates. For a week, the Syrian refugee, a hero among human rights defenders, has been detained in its women’s wing on charges so serious they have elicited baffled dismay.

      The 23-year-old, who saved 18 refugees in 2015 by swimming their waterlogged dingy to the shores of Lesbos with her Olympian sister, is accused of people smuggling, espionage and membership of a criminal organisation – crimes allegedly committed since returning to work with an NGO on the island. Under Greek law, Mardini can be held in custody pending trial for up to 18 months.

      “She is in a state of disbelief,” said her lawyer, Haris Petsalnikos, who has petitioned for her release. “The accusations are more about criminalising humanitarian action. Sara wasn’t even here when these alleged crimes took place but as charges they are serious, perhaps the most serious any aid worker has ever faced.”

      Mardini’s arrival to Europe might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the extraordinary courage she and younger sister, Yusra, exhibited guiding their boat to safety after the engine failed during the treacherous crossing from Turkey. Both were elite swimmers, with Yusra going on to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

      The sisters, whose story is the basis of a forthcoming film by the British director Stephen Daldry, were credited with saving the lives of their fellow passengers. In Germany, their adopted homeland, the pair has since been accorded star status.

      It was because of her inspiring story that Mardini was approached by Emergency Response Centre International, ERCI, on Lesbos. “After risking her own life to save 18 people … not only has she come back to ground zero, but she is here to ensure that no more lives get lost on this perilous journey,” it said after Mardini agreed to join its ranks in 2016.

      After her first stint with ERCI, she again returned to Lesbos last December to volunteer with the aid group. And until 21 August there was nothing to suggest her second spell had not gone well. But as Mardini waited at Mytilini airport to head back to Germany, and a scholarship at Bard College in Berlin, she was arrested. Soon after that, police also arrested ERCI’s field director, Nassos Karakitsos, a former Greek naval force officer, and Sean Binder, a German volunteer who lives in Ireland. All three have protested their innocence.

      The arrests come as signs of a global clampdown on solidarity networks mount. From Russia to Spain, European human rights workers have been targeted in what campaigners call an increasingly sinister attempt to silence civil society in the name of security.

      “There is the concern that this is another example of civil society being closed down by the state,” said Jonathan Cooper, an international human rights lawyer in London. “What we are really seeing is Greek authorities using Sara to send a very worrying message that if you volunteer for refugee work you do so at your peril.”

      But amid concerns about heavy-handed tactics humanitarians face, Greek police say there are others who see a murky side to the story, one ofpeople trafficking and young volunteers being duped into participating in a criminal network unwittingly. In that scenario,the Mardini sisters would make prime targets.

      Greek authorities spent six months investigating the affair. Agents were flown into Lesbos from Athens and Thessaloniki. In an unusually long and detailed statement, last week, Mytilini police said that while posing as a non-profit organisation, ERCI had acted with the sole purpose of profiteering by bringing people illegally into Greece via the north-eastern Aegean islands.

      Members had intercepted Greek and European coastguard radio transmissions to gain advance notification of the location of smugglers’ boats, police said, and that 30, mostly foreign nationals, were lined up to be questioned in connection with the alleged activities. Other “similar organisations” had also collaborated in what was described as “an informal plan to confront emergency situations”, they added.

      Suspicions were first raised, police said, when Mardini and Binder were stopped in February driving a former military 4X4 with false number plates. ERCI remained unnamed until the release of the charge sheets for the pair and that of Karakitsos.

      Lesbos has long been on the frontline of the refugee crisis, attracting idealists and charity workers. Until a dramatic decline in migration numbers via the eastern Mediterranean in March 2016, when a landmark deal was signed between the EU and Turkey, the island was the main entry point to Europe.

      An estimated 114 NGOs and 7,356 volunteers are based on Lesbos, according to Greek authorities. Local officials talk of “an industry”, and with more than 10,000 refugees there and the mood at boiling point, accusations of NGOs acting as a “pull factor” are rife.

      “Sara’s motive for going back this year was purely humanitarian,” said Oceanne Fry, a fellow student who in June worked alongside her at a day clinic in the refugee reception centre.

      “At no point was there any indication of illegal activity by the group … but I can attest to the fact that, other than our intake meeting, none of the volunteers ever met, or interacted, with its leadership.”

      The mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, said he has seen “good and bad” in the humanitarian movement since the start of the refugee crisis.

      “Everything is possible,. There is no doubt that some NGOs have exploited the situation. The police announcement was uncommonly harsh. For a long time I have been saying that we just don’t need all these NGOs. When the crisis erupted, yes, the state was woefully unprepared but now that isn’t the case.”

      Attempts to contact ERCI were unsuccessful. Neither a telephone number nor an office address – in a scruffy downtown building listed by the aid group on social media – appeared to have any relation to it.

      In a statement released more than a week after Mardini’s arrest, ERCI denied the allegations, saying it had fallen victim to “unfounded claims, accusations and charges”. But it failed to make any mention of Mardini.

      “It makes no sense at all,” said Amed Khan, a New York financier turned philanthropist who has donated boats for ERCI’s search and rescue operations. To accuse any of them of human trafficking is crazy.

      “In today’s fortress Europe you have to wonder whether Brussels isn’t behind it, whether this isn’t a concerted effort to put a chill on civil society volunteers who are just trying to help. After all, we’re talking about grassroots organisations with global values that stepped up into the space left by authorities failing to do their bit.”


      https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/06/arrest-of-syrian-hero-swimmer-lesbos-refugees-sara-mardini?CMP=shar

      #Sarah_Mardini

    • The volunteers facing jail for rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean

      The risk of refugees and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean has increased dramatically over the past few years.

      As the European Union pursued a policy of externalisation, voluntary groups stepped in to save the thousands of people making the dangerous crossing. One by one, they are now criminalised.

      The arrest of Sarah Mardini, one of two Syrian sisters who saved a number of refugees in 2015 by pulling their sinking dinghy to Greece, has brought the issue to international attention.

      The Trial

      There aren’t chairs enough for the people gathered in Mytilíni Court. Salam Aldeen sits front row to the right. He has a nervous smile on his face, mouth half open, the tongue playing over his lips.

      Noise emanates from the queue forming in the hallway as spectators struggle for a peak through the door’s windows. The morning heat is already thick and moist – not helped by the two unplugged fans hovering motionless in dead air.

      Police officers with uneasy looks, 15 of them, lean up against the cooling walls of the court. From over the judge, a golden Jesus icon looks down on the assembly. For the sunny holiday town on Lesbos, Greece, this is not a normal court proceeding.

      Outside the court, international media has unpacked their cameras and unloaded their equipment. They’ve come from the New York Times, Deutsche Welle, Danish, Greek and Spanish media along with two separate documentary teams.

      There is no way of knowing when the trial will end. Maybe in a couple of days, some of the journalists say, others point to the unpredictability of the Greek judicial system. If the authorities decide to make a principle out of the case, this could take months.

      Salam Aldeen, in a dark blue jacket, white shirt and tie, knows this. He is charged with human smuggling and faces life in jail.

      More than 16,000 people have drowned in less than five years trying to cross the Mediterranean. That’s an average of ten people dying every day outside Europe’s southern border – more than the Russia-Ukraine conflict over the same period.

      In 2015, when more than one million refugees crossed the Mediterranean, the official death toll was around 3,700. A year later, the number of migrants dropped by two thirds – but the death toll increased to more than 5,000. With still fewer migrants crossing during 2017 and the first half of 2018, one would expect the rate of surviving to pick up.

      The numbers, however, tell a different story. For a refugee setting out to cross the Mediterranean today, the risk of drowning has significantly increased.

      The deaths of thousands of people don’t happen in a vacuum. And it would be impossible to explain the increased risks of crossing without considering recent changes in EU-policies towards migration in the Mediterranean.

      The criminalisation of a Danish NGO-worker on the tiny Greek island of Lesbos might help us understand the deeper layers of EU immigration policy.

      The deterrence effect

      On 27 March 2011, 72 migrants flee Tripoli and squeeze into a 12m long rubber dinghy with a max capacity of 25 people. They start the outboard engine and set out in the Mediterranean night, bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa. In the morning, they are registered by a French aircraft flying over. The migrants stay on course. But 18 hours into their voyage, they send out a distress-call from a satellite phone. The signal is picked up by the rescue centre in Rome who alerts other vessels in the area.

      Two hours later, a military helicopter flies over the boat. At this point, the migrants accidentally drop their satellite phone in the sea. In the hours to follow, the migrants encounter several fishing boats – but their call of distress is ignored. As day turns into night, a second helicopter appears and drops rations of water and biscuits before leaving.

      And then, the following morning on 28 March – the migrants run out of fuel. Left at the mercy of wind and oceanic currents, the migrants embark on a hopeless journey. They drift south; exactly where they came from.

      They don’t see any ships the following day. Nor the next; a whole week goes by without contact to the outside world. But then, somewhere between 3 and 5 April, a military vessel appears on the horizon. It moves in on the migrants and circle their boat.

      The migrants, exhausted and on the brink of despair, wave and signal distress. But as suddenly as it arrived, the military vessel turns around and disappears. And all hope with it.

      On April 10, almost a week later, the migrant vessel lands on a beach south of Tripoli. Of the 72 passengers who left 2 weeks ago, only 11 make it back alive. Two die shortly hereafter.

      Lorenzo Pezzani, lecturer at Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths University of London, was stunned when he read about the case. In 2011, he was still a PhD student developing new spatial and aesthetic visual tools to document human rights violations. Concerned with the rising number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, Lorenzo Pezzani and his colleague Charles Heller founded Forensic Oceanography, an affiliated group to Forensic Architecture. Their first project was to uncover the events and policies leading to a vessel left adrift in full knowledge by international rescue operations.

      It was the public outrage fuelled by the 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck which eventually led to the deployment of Operation Mare Nostrum. At this point, the largest migration of people since the Second World War, the Syrian exodus, could no longer be contained within Syria’s neighbouring countries. At the same time, a relative stability in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 descended into civil war; waves of migrants started to cross the Mediterranean.

      From October 2013, Mare Nostrum broke with the reigning EU-policy of non-interference and deployed Italian naval vessels, planes and helicopters at a monthly cost of €9.5 million. The scale was unprecedented; saving lives became the political priority over policing and border control. In terms of lives saved, the operation was an undisputed success. Its own life, however, would be short.

      A critical narrative formed on the political right and was amplified by sections of the media: Mare Nostrum was accused of emboldening Libyan smugglers who – knowing rescue ships were waiting – would send out more migrants. In this understanding, Mare Nostrum constituted a so-called “pull factor” on migrants from North African countries. A year after its inception, Mare Nostrum was terminated.

      In late 2014, Mare Nostrum was replaced by Operation Triton led by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, with an initial budget of €2.4 million per month. Triton refocused on border control instead of sea rescues in an area much closer to Italian shores. This was a return to the pre-Mare Nostrum policy of non-assistance to deter migrants from crossing. But not only did the change of policy fail to act as a deterrence against the thousands of migrants still crossing the Mediterranean, it also left a huge gap between the amount of boats in distress and operational rescue vessels. A gap increasingly filled by merchant vessels.

      Merchant vessels, however, do not have the equipment or training to handle rescues of this volume. On 31 March 2015, the shipping community made a call to EU-politicians warning of a “terrible risk of further catastrophic loss of life as ever-more desperate people attempt this deadly sea crossing”. Between 1 January and 20 May 2015, merchant ships rescued 12.000 people – 30 per cent of the total number rescued in the Mediterranean.

      As the shipping community had already foreseen, the new policy of non-assistance as deterrence led to several horrific incidents. These culminated in two catastrophic shipwrecks on 12 and 18 April 2015 and the death of 1,200 people. In both cases, merchant vessels were right next to the overcrowded migrant boats when chaotic rescue attempts caused the migrant boats to take in water and eventually sink. The crew of the merchant vessels could only watch as hundreds of people disappeared in the ocean.

      Back in 1990, the Dublin Convention declared that the first EU-country an asylum seeker enters is responsible for accepting or rejecting the claim. No one in 1990 had expected the Syrian exodus of 2015 – nor the gigantic pressure it would put on just a handful of member states. No other EU-member felt the ineptitudes and total unpreparedness of the immigration system than a country already knee-deep in a harrowing economic crisis. That country was Greece.

      In September 2015, when the world saw the picture of a three-year old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey, Europe was already months into what was readily called a “refugee crisis”. Greece was overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Syrian war. During the following month alone, a staggering 200.000 migrants crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to reach Europe. With a minimum of institutional support, it was volunteers like Salam Aldeen who helped reduce the overall number of casualties.

      The peak of migrants entered Greece that autumn but huge numbers kept arriving throughout the winter – in worsening sea conditions. Salam Aldeen recalls one December morning on Lesbos.

      The EU-Turkey deal

      And then, from one day to the next, the EU-Turkey deal changed everything. There was a virtual stop of people crossing from Turkey to Greece. From a perspective of deterrence, the agreement was an instant success. In all its simplicity, Turkey had agreed to contain and prevent refugees from reaching the EU – by land or by sea. For this, Turkey would be given a monetary compensation.

      But opponents of the deal included major human rights organisations. Simply paying Turkey a formidable sum of money (€6 billion to this date) to prevent migrants from reaching EU-borders was feared to be a symptom of an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude pervasive among EU decision makers. Moreover, just like Libya in 2015 threatened to flood Europe with migrants, the Turkish President Erdogan would suddenly have a powerful geopolitical card on his hands. A concern that would later be confirmed by EU’s vague response to Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkish opposition.

      As immigration dwindled in Greece, the flow of migrants and refugees continued and increased in the Central Mediterranean during the summer of 2016. At the same time, disorganised Libyan militias were now running the smuggling business and exploited people more ruthlessly than ever before. Migrant boats without satellite phones or enough provision or fuel became increasingly common. Due to safety concerns, merchant vessels were more reluctant to assist in rescue operations. The death toll increased.
      A Conspiracy?

      Frustrated with the perceived apathy of EU states, Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) responded to the situation. At its peak, 12 search and rescue NGO vessels were operating in the Mediterranean and while the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) paused many of its operations during the fall and winter of 2016, the remaining NGO vessels did the bulk of the work. Under increasingly dangerous weather conditions, 47 per cent of all November rescues were carried out by NGOs.

      Around this time, the first accusations were launched against rescue NGOs from ‘alt-right’ groups. Accusations, it should be noted, conspicuously like the ones sounded against Mare Nostrum. Just like in 2014, Frontex and EU-politicians followed up and accused NGOs of posing a “pull factor”. The now Italian vice-prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, went even further and denounced NGOs as “taxis for migrants”. Just like in 2014, no consideration was given to the conditions in Libya.

      Moreover, NGOs were falsely accused of collusion with Libyan smugglers. Meanwhile Italian agents had infiltrated the crew of a Save the Children rescue vessel to uncover alleged secret evidence of collusion. The German Jugendrettet NGO-vessel, Iuventa, was impounded and – echoing Salam Aldeen’s case in Greece – the captain accused of collusion with smugglers by Italian authorities.

      The attacks to delegitimise NGOs’ rescue efforts have had a clear effect: many of the NGOs have now effectively stopped their operations in the Mediterranean. Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller, in their report, Mare Clausum, argued that the wave of delegitimisation of humanitarian work was just one part of a two-legged strategy – designed by the EU – to regain control over the Mediterranean.
      Migrants’ rights aren’t human rights

      Libya long ago descended into a precarious state of lawlessness. In the maelstrom of poverty, war and despair, migrants and refugees have become an exploitable resource for rivalling militias in a country where two separate governments compete for power.

      In November 2017, a CNN investigation exposed an entire industry involving slave auctions, rape and people being worked to death.

      Chief spokesman of the UN Migration Agency, Leonard Doyle, describes Libya as a “torture archipelago” where migrants transiting have no idea that they are turned into commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value.

      Migrants intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) are routinely brought back to the hellish detention centres for indefinite captivity. Despite EU-leaders’ moral outcry following the exposure of the conditions in Libya, the EU continues to be instrumental in the capacity building of the LCG.

      Libya hadn’t had a functioning coast guard since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. But starting in late 2016, the LCG received increasing funding from Italy and the EU in the form of patrol boats, training and financial support.

      Seeing the effect of the EU-Turkey deal in deterring refugees crossing the Aegean Sea, Italy and the EU have done all in their power to create a similar approach in Libya.
      The EU Summit

      Forty-two thousand undocumented migrants have so far arrived at Europe’s shores this year. That’s a fraction of the more than one million who arrived in 2015. But when EU leaders met at an “emergency summit” in Brussels in late June, the issue of migration was described by Chancellor Merkel as a “make or break” for the Union. How does this align with the dwindling numbers of refugees and migrants?

      Data released in June 2018 showed that Europeans are more concerned about immigration than any other social challenge. More than half want a ban on migration from Muslim countries. Europe, it seems, lives in two different, incompatible realities as summit after summit tries to untie the Gordian knot of the migration issue.

      Inside the courthouse in Mytilini, Salam Aldeen is questioned by the district prosecutor. The tropical temperature induces an echoing silence from the crowded spectators. The district prosecutor looks at him, open mouth, chin resting on her fist.

      She seems impatient with the translator and the process of going from Greek to English and back. Her eyes search the room. She questions him in detail about the night of arrest. He answers patiently. She wants Salam Aldeen and the four crew members to be found guilty of human smuggling.

      Salam Aldeen’s lawyer, Mr Fragkiskos Ragkousis, an elderly white-haired man, rises before the court for his final statement. An ancient statuette with his glasses in one hand. Salam’s parents sit with scared faces, they haven’t slept for two days; the father’s comforting arm covers the mother’s shoulder. Then, like a once dormant volcano, the lawyer erupts in a torrent of pathos and logos.

      “Political interests changed the truth and created this wicked situation, playing with the defendant’s freedom and honour.”

      He talks to the judge as well as the public. A tragedy, a drama unfolds. The prosecutor looks remorseful, like a small child in her large chair, almost apologetic. Defeated. He’s singing now, Ragkousis. Index finger hits the air much like thunder breaks the night sounding the roar of something eternal. He then sits and the room quiets.

      It was “without a doubt” that the judge acquitted Salam Aldeen and his four colleagues on all charges. The prosecutor both had to determine the defendants’ intention to commit the crime – and that the criminal action had been initialised. She failed at both. The case, as the Italian case against the Iuventa, was baseless.

      But EU’s policy of externalisation continues. On 17 March 2018, the ProActiva rescue vessel, Open Arms, was seized by Italian authorities after it had brought back 217 people to safety.

      Then again in June, the decline by Malta and Italy’s new right-wing government to let the Aquarious rescue-vessel dock with 629 rescued people on board sparked a fierce debate in international media.

      In July, Sea Watch’s Moonbird, a small aircraft used to search for migrant boats, was prevented from flying any more operations by Maltese authorities; the vessel Sea Watch III was blocked from leaving harbour and the captain of a vessel from the NGO Mission Lifeline was taken to court over “registration irregularities“.

      Regardless of Europe’s future political currents, geopolitical developments are only likely to continue to produce refugees worldwide. Will the EU alter its course as the crisis mutates and persists? Or are the deaths of thousands the only possible outcome?

      https://theferret.scot/volunteers-facing-jail-rescuing-migrants-mediterranean