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Our prison is full of asylum seekers who drove boats

Karl Kopp
Director of European Affairs, Pro Asyl

In Greece, serious and well-documented crimes are being committed against refugees. The perpetrators in uniform can lull themselves into a false sense of security despite pushbacks that violate international law, serious mistreatment, and the refusal to save lives. These human rights violations go unpunished. At the same time, detention centres are filling up: people seeking life and refuge in Europe are sentenced to draconian punishments as ‘captains’, and thus as alleged traffickers, despite the fact that smugglers remain in Turkey and are not on board. As in the case of the El Hiblu 3, victims of the brutal EU border regime in the Aegean are criminalised and imprisoned. Just like the three teenagers, a father from Somalia sits in the dock, even though he saved lives. When H. M. took the helm of a sinking boat off the island of Lesbos in December 2020, he said he was terrified but determined to save himself and the other 33 people on board. In May 2021, the criminal court in Mytilene sentenced him at first instance to a total of 142 years in prison for smuggling. The Greek Coast Guard and the European border agency Frontex arrest people piloting rickety boats across the Aegean Sea. The so-called ‘captains’ are given short shrift. In proceedings that violate the rule of law, they are sentenced to draconian punishments. One of the few studies on this process, entitled ‘Incarcerating the Marginalized. The fight against alleged ‘smugglers’ on the Greek hotspot islands’,1 comes to a shocking conclusion: the analysed court proceedings only lasted between 15 and 75 minutes. As of 1 January 2019, the total number of people detained in Greek prisons was 10,654 – just under 2,000 people were convicted of aiding and abetting ‘illegal entry’. Lawyer Dimitris Choulis, working on Samos, describes the consequences of this policy of criminalising and deterring refugees as follows: “Our prison is full of asylum seekers who drove boats.” Farmakonisi Island: In January 2014, three women and eight children from Afghanistan died in a pushback operation by the Greek coast guard. The refugee boat was towed by the coast guard towards Turkey in stormy seas. The outcry in Europe was great. The deaths near Farmakonisi certainly led to the Syriza government ending its policy of forcible refoulement, at least at sea, after its election victory in January 2015. However, in Greece, all lawsuits against the coast guard were dismissed. After their own case against the Greek coast guard was dismissed, the survivors filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in January 2015. They are still waiting for justice. A judgement from Strasbourg is pending. A young Syrian refugee, the 16th survivor, had to pay bitterly. The Greek authorities claim that he was the captain of the boat. The other survivors insist: “He is like us. A refugee. There was no smuggler on board at all.” Nevertheless, in 2015, the youth was sentenced at first instance to a total of 145 years and three months imprisonment and fined €570,500 for being the ‘captain’ of the boat and thus responsible for the deaths. The years sentenced is multiplied by the number of ‘smuggled persons’. If deaths occur, the sentence is more severe. An appeal court in Rhodes acquitted the young Syrian of responsibility for the deaths of the eleven victims. According to the verdict, the fatal boat disaster was caused by the deployment of the Greek coast guard. The sentence was reduced to ten years with the boat driving charge remaining despite the fact that the court accepted that he was a refugee himself, fleeing to find protection. In accordance with Greek law, the young man was released after almost three and a half years of juvenile detention. Samos Island: On the night of 7 November 2020, N. and H., together with 23 other refugees, tried to reach Greece from Turkey on an inflatable boat. Also on board were N.’s 6-year-old son and H’s sister, brother and disabled mother. The families had fled Afghanistan and were seeking protection in Europe. Off the Greek island of Samos, the boat got into distress and capsized. Although the Greek coast guard was informed about the emergency, it took several hours before they arrived on the scene. The survivors testified that they saw a coast guard boat approaching twice, but it did not rescue them. N.s son died. The distraught N. did not receive psychological treatment but was instead remanded in custody. He is facing up to ten years in prison for endangering his child. N. says, “I lost my son. He drowned in the water. On top of that, they arrested me in that horrible situation and put me in prison. They say it is the law. This cannot be the law. This is inhumane. This must be illegal. Are they really going to blame me for the death of my son? He was everything I had. I essentially came here for my son.” H., the second occupant of the boat, is charged as ‘captain’ with the ‘unauthorised transport of 24 third-country nationals into Greek territory’. He faces a life sentence.2 It is a blatant injustice that people, who are not afforded regular forms of mobility in their search for protection and a dignified life, are locked away just because circumstances forced them to take the helm of a boat. Seeking protection deserves legal security, respect and immunity from prosecution. Instead, smuggled refugees and migrants face punishment due to restrictive and inhumane EU legislation. Unfortunately, these forms of criminalisation have not yet received the public outcry they deserve. This means that we must speak up and do everything to end these shameful policies. We owe this to the El Hiblu 3, as well as the ‘captains’ in Greek prisons and elsewhere.