A person is sentenced to 52 years of prison for allegedly steering a boat from Turkish shores to Greek territory, despite testimonies that contradict this. Another man is sentenced to 146 years for manoeuvring a boat in distress safely ashore, saving the lives of 33 people. A desperate woman attempting to end her life is charges with “aggravated arson and destruction of public property”.

Several of such bizarre cases of criminalisation made international headline in the past year. And while we remain shocked and angry each time, we know that they are the exception: Most cases go unnoticed by the public. It is also important to understand that those are neither isolated cases nor a new phenomenon. Systematic criminalisation of migrants has a tradition in Greece as part of Europe’s policies of deterrence and isolation. Laws have been passed [1] that allow draconian measures against already marginalised people under the cloak of fighting smuggling and securing Europe.

Those laws are used to arbitrarily single out people to oppress any resistance or to hand out extensive life sentences to the ones, whose last measures in protecting their lives is having to rely on smugglers. Those are the people that are already vulnerable and in need of protection, as they are not eligible or able to simply take a plane or ferry to safety – a gross injustice politically desired by the European Union.

While European law constitutes clear rights to the access of asylum procedures, we are witnessing extreme charges for persons, that struggle to defend their rights properly.

How the legal system is failing people on the movesst

A report [2], in which 48 court cases against alleged drivers from 2016-2019 were analysed, concluded that trials lasted 15 to 75 minutes and led to an average prison sentence of 48,65 years with an average fee of 396,687 € [3]. Not one single one of the accused persons was acquitted, all of them ended up in prison with outrageous sentences – especially if compared with other criminal verdicts, such as murder.

The entire procedure from the arrest to the prison sentences is characterized by procedural shortcomings, disregard of laws, denial of human rights and a significant, if not total, lack of justice: Often the lawyers meet their clients for the first time in court, without having access to the files before and therefore no chance to prepare. The accused sometimes don’t understand what is going on in the court room during their own trial because there is either no interpreter or an extremely under-qualified one. In most cases the only proof is a witness account by a Hellenic Coast Guard officer – while contradicting testimonies or reports of severe violence by coast guard, police and prison guards are systematically ignored.

The staggering injustice of a system that singles out the most vulnerable doesn't just protect the real smuggler networks but even enables them: Organized traffickers and smugglers – aware of the enormous risks of being arrested – do not embark on the boats or simply abandon them, before it poses any danger to them. Sadly, it has become the ‘modus operandi’ to arrest one or several men upon arrival of a boat, to the extent that in 2019 over half of the prison population in Greece were third-country-nationals, according to the Minister of Justice [4].

This can be directly linked to the generous EU-funding as seen more recently with the granting of 700 million Euro in 2020 [5] [6] for “containing Greeks borders” and “financial assistance for its migrations management”, which also helps increasing the numbers of Greek police, coast guard and FRONTEX staff, deployed at the border. They are the same forces that have illegally and often very brutally pushed back over 13,450 people on the move, who had reached Greek territorial waters or even land, since March 2020 [7] [8].

Another form of criminalisation often occurs in the context of protests by people on the move. The inhumane conditions in the Greek Hotspot camps have led to many self-organized protests over the years – from written demands and demonstrations to hunger strikes. Often authorities react with sheer brutality and by arbitrarily arresting individuals for being responsible, such as in the well-known cases of the Moria35 [9] or the Moria6 (see below). It is a despicable but common tactic to oppress refugee-organized resistance and to spread fear to prevent any form of protests.

Exemplary cases of criminalisation

March 2020: Amir and Razuli set out to reach Greece in a flimsy rubber boat. That month, the Greek government had unlawfully suspended the right to seek asylum – a basic human right – and started establishing illegal pushbacks as a standardized ‘border protection method’. The rubber boat got punctured when the Hellenic Coast Guardtried to push it back to Turkish waters and was on the verge of sinking, forcing the coast guard to take the refugees on board. Amir’s heavily pregnant wife said that her husband was beaten severely by the officers until she held their child in front of her husband with the desperate plea to stop the violence. Amir and Razuli were sentenced to 50 years each on 8th September 2020 for "facilitating illegal entry" [10].

March 2020: While the right to seek asylum was unlawfully suspended in Greece – K.S. reached Chios, together with his wife and their three young children. They had fled from the war in Syria to Turkey, where K.S. was imprisoned and tortured for refusing to join a Turkish military. After him and his family had managed to escape and supposedly reached safety in Europe, K. S. was arrested and imprisoned for ‘facilitating illegal entry’ and ‘endangering life’. Even though his wife testified that he was not the driver, K. S. was sentenced to 52 years in an unfair trial and 242.000 € fine [11].

8. – 9. September 2020: Europe’s biggest refugee camp Moria – often referred to as hell by its inhabitants – burns down. Shortly after, 6 teenagers (two of them recognised as minors, three wrongfully registered as adults and one 18-year-old from Afghanistan), were arrested for causing the fire, based on the account of one questionable witness. A person belonging to a group known to be in conflict with the ethnic group of the six boys [12]. A week later the Greek minister of migration Notis Mitarachi publicly declared the teenagers as guilty of causing the fire [13]: A clear violation of the presumption of innocence. The two (official) minors were tried and found guilty in March 2021. In response to the sentence of 5 yearstheir lawyers from Legal Center Lesvosstated: “The trial of these two members of the Moria6 constitutes a gross miscarriage of justice. The tragic result of today’s trial appears to form part of a systematic effort to crush any resistance to Europe’s border regime through collective punishment, by arbitrarily arresting and pressing criminal charges against migrants following migrant-led resistance” [14] . The trial against the remaining four will take place on Chios on 11th June 2021 [15].

7. – 8. November 2020: A boat with 25 people on board capsized off the coast of Samos. Tragically, a 5-year-old boy drowned in the shipwreckthat night. The 25-year-old grieving father was shortly after arrested and accused of ‘endangering a life’ – a charge which could result in 10 years in prison. [16]. To this point similar to many other cases of criminalisation, yet particularly shameful. Later the father decided to sue the Hellenic Coast Guard for deliberately delaying the rescue and therefore being responsible for the death of his child [17]. The HCG had been informed about the distress case on Saturday night but a rescue mission was not launched until much later on Sunday morning [18] [19]. The father is currently awaiting his trial.

Together with the father the driver of the boat was arrested: 23-year-old H.E. from Afghanistan was aboard with his siblings and his chronically ill and disabled mother, unable to walk. When interrogated, his sister confirmed that her brother was driving the boat unaware of the seriousness of the offence. H.E. is currently awaiting his trial and facing a possible sentence of 230 years for ‘facilitating illegal entry’, ‘provoking a shipwreck’ and 'causing a death'. while his real criminal act was to attempt reaching safety to apply for asylum on European soil.

27-year-old J.J. fled the war in Syria in 2017: He couldn’t find a way to support himself in Turkey, which is why he decided to make his way to Europe, to be reunited with his two siblings in Germany. Because he couldn’t afford the crossing, he agreed to drive the boat in exchange for ‘free passage’ and the smuggler gave the completely unexperienced J.J. an express learning lesson. After leaving, the boat soon had engine problems and the smuggler returned to the dinghy to fix it. J.J. – really stressed at this point – didn’t want to drive after that, but was forced to do so. The group was later rescued by FRONTEX and J.J. arrested. Still in 2017 he was sentenced to 55 years. His lawyers filed an appeal, but just recently his appeal date was postponed for the 4th time [20].

M. M.: A heavily pregnant woman, living in the camp Moria 2.0 (a.k.a. Mavrovouni) together with her husband and their 3 children, tried to commit suicide in February 2021by setting herself on fire after finding out that their transferral to Germany had been cancelled due to her advanced pregnancy. After over 16 months of suffering in inhumane camps on Lesvos the realization that she would have to give birth to another child while still being forced to live in catastrophic conditions of the camp was unbearable for her. After camp residents put out the fire, she was brought to the hospital, where she was guarded by police. Shortly after a preliminary hearing was held while she was still bed bound recovering from the burns. She was charged with 'aggravated arson with intent, resulting in danger to human life and property’ [21] [22].

2. December 2020: A boat with 33 people, including three children capsized near Lesvos and two women tragically lost their live.The Hellenic Coast Guard pulled the survivors out of the water and immediately arrested Mohamad H. – a Somali father of four as the driver. Greek minister of migration Notis Mitarachi publicly blamed the Turkish Coast Guard and NGOs (without naming them) for the tragedy [23] – an accusation which has become his standard response to nearly every scenario [24]. Still Mohamad H. was charged with the very same allegations: being responsible for the two deaths and endangering the lives of the other passengers additionally to smuggling – despite himself being an asylum seeker himself and the others testifying that they owe their lives to him. Mohamad H. was sentenced to 146 years [25].

The law works in mysteroious ways

There is a war against migrants at Europe’s external borders:
People on the move are forced onto illegal and life-threatening routes in order to reach Europe and claim asylum. In the process they are subjected to unspeakable violence and stripped of their rights at the highly militarized borders. Since March 2020 illegal and brutal pushbacks by the Greek authorities, FRONTEX and NATO have been established as ‘modus operandi’. To this point none of the actors have been held accountable for those well documented mass human rights violations.

If people on the move make it to Europe alive, despite the enormous efforts to let them die rather than to welcome them, many of them are prosecuted up to and beyond the fullest extent of the law by a the very same system that fails to prosecute crimes committed at the border in epic proportions.

The same is happening on land and sea: Courts regularly ignore accounts of police brutality, but arbitrarily prosecute refugees who protest for their rights and against inhumane treatment.

While Greece displays an exemplary character of determent against refugees, we experience similar state injustice all over Europe’s southern external borders in proceedings against people in need of protection – like the El Hiblu 3 case in Malta or the imprisonment of boat drivers in Sicily. The list is endless.

The law is being weaponised and misused to criminalise people on the move, while institutions like the Hellenic Coast Guard and FRONTEX act outside the law without any consequences.

This scandalous injustice must be stopped. We demand that all people are treated equally before the law and that all racist laws that are used to criminalise people on the move are terminated!

[1] UN Resolution 48/102 on Prevention of Smuggling of Aliens (1993), Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (2000), Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2000)

[2] Hänsel, V., Moloney, R., Firla, D., Serkepkanî, R.(2020) „Incarcerating the Marginalised – The Fight Against Alleged „Smugglers“ on the Greek Hotspot Islands”, by Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe and bordermonitoring.eu (https://www.borderline-europe.de/sites/default/files/readingtips/report-2020-Incarcerating%20the%20Marginalised%20-%20The%20Fight%20Against%20Alleged%20%22Smugglers%22%20on%20the%20Greek%20Hotspot%20Islands.pdf)

[3] Hänsel, V., Moloney, R., Firla, D., Serkepkanî, R.(2020) „Incarcerating the Marginalised – The Fight Against Alleged „Smugglers“ on the Greek Hotspot Islands”, by Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe and bordermonitoring.eu page 70

[4] Hänsel, V., Moloney, R., Firla, D., Serkepkanî, R.(2020) „Incarcerating the Marginalised – The Fight Against Alleged „Smugglers“ on the Greek Hotspot Islands”, by Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe and bordermonitoring.eu page 50

[5] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_20_380, access 09.06.21

[6] ,https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2020/frontex-an-overview/ access 09.06.21

[7] https://mare-liberum.org/de/pushback-report-2020/

[8] https://twitter.com/teammareliberum/status/1400842525804539911?s=20

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKpXL1vRVHo&t=1s

[10] https://www.borderline-europe.de/unsere-arbeit/solidarit%C3%A4tsstatement-freiheit-f%C3%BCr-amir-und-razuli?

[11] https://www.borderline-europe.de/unsere-arbeit/syrischer-gefl%C3%BCchteter-auf-lesbos-zu-52-jahren-haft-verurteilt?l=en

[12] https://cantevictsolidarityenglish.noblogs.org/post/2021/05/26/freethemoria6-after-the-fire-in-moria-camp-call-for-a-fair-and-transparent-trial-for-the-accused-moria-6-based-on-the-presumption-of-innocence/

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52lWG65Wbq4

[14] https://legalcentrelesvos.org/2021/03/09/justice-for-the-moria-6/

[15] https://freethemoria6.noblogs.org/signers-of-the-statement/

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/nov/16/father-faces-criminal-charge-over-sons-death-in-migrant-boat-tragedy

[17] https://www.dw.com/en/afghan-migrant-to-sue-greek-coast-guard-over-sons-drowning/a-56819773

[18] https://www.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport/posts/964755564047548

[19] Solidarity networks like the Alarm Phone regularly report about the strategic acts of deterrence and isolationist policies and their factual consequences: https://alarmphone.org/en/2021/03/31/we-asked-for-help-but-they-only-shouted-go-back-go-back/

[20] Source: Interview with „The Human rights legal project – Samos”. 08.06.2021

[21] https://legalcentrelesvos.org/2021/03/09/press-release-regarding-the-case-of-m-m/

[22] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/26/woman-who-set-herself-on-fire-in-lesbos-refugee-camp-may-face-arson-charges

[23] https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2020/12/02/migration-minister-migrants-lesvos/

[24] https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2020/12/02/migration-minister-migrants-lesvos/

[25] https://www.borderline-europe.de/unsere-arbeit/lesbos-mohamad-h-zu-146-jahren-haft-verurteilt

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