Draconian punishments for boat people
It is 5 May 2022. Kheiraldin A. is sitting in the courtroom on Syros, the main island of the Greek Cyclades, awaiting sentencing. Next to him are his two co-defendants Abdallah J. and Mohammed B. The three Syrians are charged with "facilitating unauthorised entry" into Greece, "membership in a criminal organisation" and "causing shipwreck". They are also charged with being complicit in the deaths of 18 people.
On Christmas Eve 2021, the three men were among at least 81 passengers who boarded a boat at dawn organised by people smugglers in the Turkish coastal town of Cesme to take them to Europe. Recently, to avoid being picked up by the Greek coastguard and deported back to Turkey, an increasing number of those seeking protection are opting for the long and dangerous escape route that takes them directly to Italy. According to their own statements, the mainly Syrian migrants paid between 7,000 and almost 10,000 euros for the crossing.
Blind eye to pushbacks
Kheiraldin, 39, has attempted to enter Europe several times, but has been pushed back to Turkey each time. In these so-called "pushbacks", migrants are forcibly pushed back from the borders of their destination or transit country. Children are also among them. Pushbacks violate European law and international conventions. In April, it was revealed that the EU border agency Frontex engaged in the unlawful pushback of at least 957 people seeking protection between March 2020 and September 2021. Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri resigned in late April following serious allegations related to the refoulement of migrants.
Kheiraldin and his friends were unwilling to risk further rejection, especially as they faced deportation to Syria. They therefore decided to flee to Italy by direct sea route. The men came from modest backgrounds and had been living with their wives and children in precarious conditions in Turkey for years. Kheiraldin's 2-year-old daughter has a congenital heart defect and needs life-saving surgery, so he hoped for help in Europe. Since the men could not raise the sum demanded by the smugglers, Kheiraldin offered himself as a helmsman, while Abdallah and Mohammed hired themselves out as mechanic and assistant, respectively.
The touts transported their "clients" on trucks from Istanbul to Cesme a few days before Christmas. There they were hidden from the Turkish police for several days without sufficient food. When the 81 or so passengers finally stood in front of the boat, they got the fright of their lives: the taxi-boat, which was only twelve metres long, was really made for short distances. They had originally been promised a sufficiently large boat. But there was no turning back, especially since they had left their last belongings behind in the hope of a better life.
At dawn, the weather conditions were still favourable. For more than 160 kilometres, the voyage went without a hitch. Then night fell and with its onset came the wintry cold of the Aegean Sea. In the early evening, about thirteen kilometres from the Cycladic island of Paros, one engine failed. Then the second. Kheiraldin, Mohammed and Abdallah tried in vain to get the engines going again. Panic broke out when water entered the completely overcrowded boat. The boat capsized. Some passengers drowned immediately, others drifted in the freezing sea for hours. Others managed to haul themselves onto the keel of the drifting boat. Fishermen from Paros were the first to arrive after about two hours.
The Hellenic Rescue Team's "Chiara", donated by the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (DGzRS), was deployed to rescue the shipwrecked. Ultimately it was also joined by boats belonging to the Greek coastguard. In the end, 63 people were brought ashore. Residents of the island of Paros provided them with the most basic necessities. Sixteen bodies were recovered, including three women and a small child.
Treating shipwrecked like criminals
The survivors were accommodated in the local technical college. Officials confiscated their mobile phones and guarded them like prisoners. Contact with the outside world or even the press was forbidden; there was talk of a criminal investigation. The traumatised asylum-seekers were classed as illegal immigrants and accused of human smuggling and complicity in the deaths of those who had drowned. They were not advised of their rights, nor were they given the opportunity to call relatives or lawyers. In the two days that followed, the authorities did everything they could to find out who had been at the helm.
Those travelling to Europe in search of protection are systematically denied the right to a fair asylum procedure in Greece – with the silent acquiescence of the European Union. Human rights activists, NGOs and journalists are increasingly subject to reprisals and attacks by the Greek government. Rescue workers have even received death threats from the Greek far-right scene, as prominent sea rescuer Iasonas Apostolopoulos himself recently admitted.
On 27 December, the police put the remaining 60 protection seekers on the ferry to Piraeus and from there to Amygdaleza detention centre for undocumented immigrants. Weeks later, a few were allowed to apply for asylum. Families and the particularly vulnerable were given preferential treatment and distributed to other camps – it is practically impossible to find out what became of them. Among them was Ibrahim B. The 31-year-old Syrian had already been living in Leipzig for seven years as a "recognised refugee". A trip to Greece, where he wanted to meet a relative he had not seen since fleeing Syria, was his undoing last year: Greek police confiscated his German papers and deported him back to Turkey via the Evros River. Ibrahim B. was now suddenly without papers and travelling illegally. His attempt to obtain new documents at short notice through the German Embassy failed. In his distress, he decided to make the second escape of his life: on the ill-fated boat from Cesme.
Kheiraldin A., Abdallah J. and Mohammed B. met a different fate: they were imprisoned as alleged "boatmen" on the island of Chios. The coastguard of Paros gutted and destroyed the wrecked boat, which still contained the backpacks containing the migrants' personal belongings. In the weeks that followed, more bodies floated up on Paros and other islands. Two of them were attributed to the Paros shipwreck. The death toll from Paros thus rose to 18, including 23-year-old Rawand Mohamed Al-Ayedi. The young woman from the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in Syria was hoping to be reunited with her family in Germany. The German authorities in Jordan had granted asylum to her parents and four siblings at the time, but not to Rawand because she was already of age. The hoped-for family reunion ended tragically in the Aegean Sea.
The trial against the three defendants was scheduled unusually quickly. Those accused can often wait years for a hearing. Kheiraldin, Abdallah and Mohammed now faced 18 life sentences for each of the deaths, plus fines for each additional passenger on board the boat. borderline-europe, a Berlin-based NGO, covered the costs of the defence and hired two Greek lawyers. Defendants are usually provided with a public defence at best.
Representatives of borderline-europe, trial observers and relatives of Kheiraldin and Mohammed travelled to the trial on 4 May.
The prosecutor argued that they were guilty of "facilitating the unauthorised entry of third-country nationals with a risk to human life”. However, to the surprise, of the defendants, he himself stressed that the law itself is problematic, as it does not take into account cases such as that of the defendants, who are forced to take themselves and others to other countries and did not act for profit. The judges followed his assessment and acquitted the defendants of the charges of "causing shipwreck" and "criminal association". Nevertheless, Kheiraldin, as helmsman of the ill-fated boat, was sentenced to 187 years imprisonment, his two assistants to 126 years each.
439 years imprisonment
"Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case," explains Julia Winkler of borderline-europe. For years, fugitives have been sentenced to extremely long prison terms under the pretext of fighting human trafficking. "Not only does the EU force refugees onto life-threatening routes, absurdly it also prosecutes them afterwards. As the example of Paros3 once again shows, the authorities are aware that those arrested are not unscrupulous criminals, but refugees. Nevertheless, they are sentenced. This practice of criminalisation can therefore only be seen as a systematic, large-scale attempt to deter people from entering," says the human rights activist.
Defence lawyer Dimitris Choulis expressed relief and indignation at the same time: "Having your clients convicted in a total of 439 years in prison and consider it a win because they were spared a life sentence! This is the madness of the draconian laws of fortress Europe." The law leads to the death and imprisonment of the most vulnerable. We need a change of legislation, the lawyer said: "Seeking asylum is not a crime." The lawyers are appealing the sentence. Meanwhile, the wives of the convicts are now on their own with their children.
For the three Syrians, the court hearing on 5 May was a terrible day in more ways than one: it was almost the ninth anniversary to the day of the massacre in Baniyas, the Syrian coastal town from which the refugees come. On 3 May 2013, government troops and paramilitaries killed at least 77 civilians, including women and children. State media claimed at the time that the area had been cleared of terrorists. Already the day before, pro-Assad troops had brutally murdered at least 100 civilians in the neighbouring community of al-Bayda. Some sources even speak of 400 people. The men had fled from these circumstances with their families.
Mohammed received another sad piece of news on the day of his sentencing: a new list of people executed by the Assad regime had emerged in Syria – including his father's name.
© Qantara.de 2022