As Seán Binder is acquitted by Greek Court, NGOs stress deterring solidarity is not the solution

On January 13th, the charges against Seán Binder, the Irish humanitarian volunteer arrested in 2018 on the Greek island of Lesbos, were dropped due to the lack of translation of the indictments.

He was arrested for smuggling, espionage and other minor crimes related to his work with the NGO Emergency Response Centre International.

The criminal investigation, involving about twenty other international and Greek humanitarian workers, is far from closed and NGOs working in the field keep expressing their dissent for what they call the “criminalisation of solidarity”, only conceived, according to many, as a deterrent to stop refugees and asylum seekers from undertaking their journeys.

Inês Avelãs, Head of Advocacy and Strategy at Fenix Aid, a holistic legal aid organisation based in Lesbos and Athens, said: “There are many of these trials going on, this is just one of the most known. They are made to deter, and this can be proved by the fact that almost no search and rescue missions are left on the island.”

Ms Avelãs explains what the country – and the EU – expect as an outcome of these trials: if fewer people will be there to help, fewer people will come to seek refuge. “But people will still make their journeys to the Greek shores, they’re only going to face more danger,” she says.

“The criminalisation also involves refugees and asylum seekers themselves, as they can be charged with smuggling just because they took over a boat or swam to the shore,” says Ms Avelãs, “The same felonies that were put in place to protect them from the real criminals, are now used against them and against the people who would like to help them.”

As for the NGOs, she explains how any kind of organisation – not only the search and rescue ones – have to be increasingly careful of every step they make, even when just advocating and campaigning on the media and on their social platforms.

According to Ms Avelãs, however, “This is not a Greek problem”: “The lack of solidarity between EU member states, taking place from 2015 onwards, has led to Greece and the other first arrival countries feeling left alone with the burden,” she says, “The EU is condemning these deterrence policies now, but does, indirectly, support them. The recent response to Ukrainian displacement proved the EU has the power to respond to a refugee crisis.”

Former volunteers with Lifting Hands International, an American NGO providing services for refugees and asylum seekers in Northern Greece, stress how important it is to preserve the presence of humanitarian aid in the country.

Bella Celentano, who volunteered with the NGO in 2022, said she saw refugees and asylum seekers having to sleep outside, in extreme weather conditions and with no access to water, shelter, or food, as the residents’ camp was already full. “The support we could provide as an NGO without having legal implications was limited,” she recalls, “although we did engage in emergency distributions and aid. This shows how humanitarian aid is crucial as it literally provides a lifeline for people.”

Her colleague Enny Nicoletti said although she didn’t witness the NGO work being obstructed, she learned that it did face limitations, such as being banned from entering the beneficiaries’ residence camp. “To keep humanitarian workers in place is now essential more than ever,” she says, “The pushbacks are increasing, people are being denied fundamental rights and decent living conditions.”

Grace Londres, who also volunteered with Lifting Hands in 2022, highlighted how refugees and asylum seekers generally don’t have access to a healthy and nourishing diet, and how NGOs “try to compensate in their own way”. “We were distributing food to beneficiaries who weren’t eligible anymore to receive it from the state. Although it was still far from enough to satisfy the basic health needs of any person, we did what we could while there were no efforts from the high up decision makers.”

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