Wednesday, May 29, 2024

“Criminalize life-saving”: UN body on Greece’s migrant rescue trial

Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini, search-and-rescue volunteers who helped migrants and asylum seekers at sea, were detained and face trial in Greece on unfounded charges. Photo: HRW

A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssell, on Friday released a statement expressing concern about the long-awaited migrant rescue trial that began this week in Lesvos in Greece.

24 human rights defenders are charged over their role in helping to rescue migrants in distress at sea.

“Trials like this are deeply concerning because they criminalize life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent. Indeed, there has already been a chilling effect, with human rights defenders and humanitarian organisations forced to halt their human rights work in Greece and other EU countries,” reads the statement.

Two dozen defendants are related to Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a registered nongovernmental search-and-rescue organization that regularly cooperated with Greek authorities on missions in Greek waters and on Lesbos from 2016 to 2018.

ERCI helped more than 1,000 people to reach safety and provided survivors with medical and other assistance.

“We reiterate our call for charges against the 24 to be dismissed. The charges are in connection with their actions in rescuing migrants at sea and include several alleged misdemeanours related to the facilitation of migrant smuggling,”

A European Parliament report identified it as “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe.”

ERCI has been compelled to close its operations, while the defendants have been facing the prospect of going on trial for more than four years.

“Saving lives and providing humanitarian assistance should never be criminalized or prosecuted. Such actions are, quite simply, a humanitarian and human rights imperative”.

The UN Human Rights Office also reinforced their “long-standing concerns that anti-smuggling legislation in many European countries is being used to criminalize migrants and those who assist them”.

Addressing migrant smuggling ultimately relies on enhancing safe pathways for regular migration.

Despite the critical need for life-saving assistance in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, where nearly 500 migrants have died or gone missing since 2021 according to the International Organization for Migration,  there are currently no civil search and rescue organizations operating in Greece. 

“We note that in proceedings this morning in Mytilini on Lesvos, where the trial is taking place, the prosecution recommended the annulment of some of the charges. We would welcome such developments but reiterate our call for all charges against all defendants to be dropped,” the readout said.

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