UN and EU call on Greece to stop prosecuting migrant rescue groups

The human rights arms of the United Nations and the European Union have called on Greece to stop criminalizing pro-refugee non-profit groups. Both the U.N. and E.U. say targeting humanitarian groups with prosecutions is having a chilling effect on the efforts to save asylum seekers at sea. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    The E.U. says the number of migrants entering Europe last year hit a six-year high to well over 100,000. That is a 50 percent increase over the previous year.

    But Greece has been prosecuting the humanitarian workers who try to save asylum seekers at sea. And the U.N. and the E.U. say those prosecutions are having a chilling effect. Now a court case could prolong migrants' uncertainty.

    Here's special correspondent Malcolm Brabant.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Slogans outside a court on the Greek island of Lesbos encapsulate concerns of the U.N. and E.U.'s human rights commissioners.

    They're appalled that 24 search-and-rescue volunteers face long jail sentences for trying to save lives. The best known defendant is Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee whose heroism has been immortalized in a Netflix movie called "The Swimmers."

  • Sarah Mardini, Syrian Refugee:

    I was arrested because I was giving water and blankets.

  • Actor:

    He says he can get on a boat to Greece. There's no more room on the boat.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The film shows how Sarah and her sister swam through the night to pull their refugee dinghy to Lesbos.

    Later, Sarah became a volunteer on the island and spent four months in jail after her arrest.

  • Sarah Mardini:

    I survived the war, and I survived the crossing with the water. And I was completely fine. And just because of this situation, I just lost control of myself and my mental health.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Sarah didn't attend the hearing in Lesbos, but Sean Binder, her former colleague, did. The charge sheet includes espionage, forgery, people smuggling, money laundering and belonging to a criminal organization.

    Can you just describe to me what you think of the charges against you?

  • Sean Binder, Free Humanitarians:

    I think, in a word, they're farcical.

    There's this idea that I am some naive utopian who doesn't understand how the world works. And I'm told that I should have just followed the law. Well, that's exactly what I'm doing. What does the European Convention of Human Rights say about the right to life? It says, we must protect it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Can I ask why you have decided to go back to Greece for the trial? Because you face a long term in jail.

  • Sean Binder:

    That's right. I face 20 years' imprisonment.

    It is important that we stand up to these kinds of prosecutions, these cynical prosecutions.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Prosecutors are also gunning for Panayote Dimitras, one of Greece's most prominent human rights activists and a fierce critic of Europe's refugee policies.

  • Panayote Dimitras, Greek Helsinki Monitor:

    The West fears refugees, and they are willing to do anything, because they have no respect for human rights, to stop that flow.

    And if the victims are refugees turned back, refugees killed, drowned, NGOs being harassed, they don't care.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The "NewsHour" met Dimitras met during a 2021 investigation on the island of Samos into the case of a Central African refugee who was pushed back after landing in Greece.

    This Turkish drone footage appears to capture a pushback, as a Greek ship casts adrift asylum seekers towards Turkish territorial waters. Greece's Supreme Court has received dozens of lawsuits from Dimitras about such incidents. Now he's been accused of people smuggling and forming a criminal organization.

    What do you think the Greek authorities are trying to do to you?

  • Panayote Dimitras:

    The main cause is retaliation. They want to punish me and also to prevent me from continuing this kind of work, so as to have a free hand and a warning to all other humanitarian workers: Stay away from that.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Identical charges have been filed against Tommy Olsen. He runs the Aegean Boat Report Web site that monitors refugee traffic.

    Although Olsen is based in Northern Norway, asylum seekers frequently ask for his help while at sea.

  • Speaker:

    No water. Not enough. He will die with the baby and he will happy.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Following the slew of prosecutions, the U.N. and E.U. are calling on Greece to allow humanitarians to work free from fear of legal action.

    Greece's location makes it a magnet for asylum seekers. It's coast guards have saved thousands of lives since the refugee crisis began in 2015. But the government is exasperated by the refusal of other Europeans to share its burden.

    Out at sea, Greece is embroiled in the propaganda war with Turkey, which has been paid billions by Europe to stem the migrant flow. This Greek video shows a Turkish vessel destabilizing an asylum seeker's raft. Turkey's coast guard responds with images of alleged pushbacks.

  • Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis:

  • Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek Prime Minister:

    We are intercepting boats that come from Turkey, as we have the right to do. This is our policy. We will stand by it, and I will not accept anyone pointing the finger to this government and accusing it of inhumane behavior.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    According to the Aegean Boat Report, more than 26,000 people were pushed back by the Greek authorities in 2022. As a result, some smugglers send overcrowded boats from Turkey to Italy, bypassing Southern Greece.

    In rough seas last October, a vessel carrying 100 people struck rocks of the island of Cythera. At least five drowned. Survivors were hauled up a sheer cliff face. Search-and-rescue volunteers have been frightened away from Greek islands by prosecutions.

    And the hearing in Lesbos has done nothing to change the climate. Charges of spying and other misdemeanors were shelved because of technicalities. But serious felony allegations are still hanging over Sean Binder and his colleagues.

  • Sean Binder:

    All we want is justice. We want this to go to trial. And it doesn't seem like that will happen anytime soon.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The nonprofits insists they aren't the pull factor that lures asylum seekers to Greece.

  • Sarah Mardini:

    The refugees are not coming from me. They want safety. They're not coming to take your jobs. They're not coming to take your money. They're not taking — to take your life. They want safety. They want to just sleep a bed and not hear a war happening outside of the window.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The key question is, how will the Greek government respond to the U.N. and E.U. demands, compliance or defiance? Either way, the migrants will keep coming, risking everything in the process.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant.

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