Human rights violations at the EU’s external borders: draconian sanctions for shipwrecked

It is May 5, 2022. Kheiraldin A. is sitting in the courtroom in Syros, the main island of the Greek Cyclades, awaiting his verdict. Apart from him, the two co-accused Abdallah J. and Mohammed B. The three Syrians are accused of “assisting in illegal entry” in Greece, “participation in a criminal organization” and “causing a shipwreck”. They are also accused of complicity in the death of 18 people.

On Christmas Eve 2021, the three men were among at least 81 passengers aboard a smuggler boat early in the morning in the Turkish coastal city of Cesme that was supposed to take them to Europe. More and more people seeking protection are now choosing the long and dangerous flight that passes through Greece directly to Italy, in order not to be picked up by the Greek coast guard and pushed back to Turkey. According to their own statements, the mainly Syrian immigrants paid from 7,000 to almost 10,000 euros for the crossing.

Tolerable repulsions

Kheiraldin, 39, has tried to enter Europe several times, but each time was pushed back to Turkey. In these so-called “repulsions”, migrants are forcibly repelled from the borders of the country of destination or transit. Among them are children. The upheavals violate European law and international conventions. In April, it became known that the EU border protection body Frontex between March 2020 and September 2021 was involved in the illegal deportation of at least 957 people seeking protection. Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri resigned in late April following serious allegations of immigration denial.

Kheiraldin and his friends did not want to risk further rejection, especially since they were threatened with deportation to Syria. So they decided to take refuge in Italy by direct sea route. The men are of humble origin and have lived 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 she hoped for help in Europe. Since the men could not raise the amount demanded by the smugglers, Kheiraldin offered to become a helmsman, while Abdallah and Mohammed were hired as engineers and assistants, respectively.

The smugglers transported their “customers” by truck from Istanbul to Cesme a few days before Christmas. They were hidden there by the Turkish police for several days without enough food. When at least 81 passengers finally stood in front of the boat, the horror was great: the taxi boat, which was only twelve meters long, was actually designed for short distances. Initially they were promised a fairly large boat. But there was no going back, especially since they had left behind their last possessions in the hope of a better life.

Tragedy in the Aegean

The weather conditions were still favorable at dawn. The trip was over 160 kilometers without any problems. Then came the darkness and with it the winter cold of the Aegean. Early in the evening, about thirteen kilometers from the Cycladic island of Paros, a machine broke down. After the second. Geradin, Mohamed and Abdalla tried in vain to restart the engines. Panic broke out when the water entered the completely full boat. The boat capsized. Some passengers drowned instantly, others were dragged for hours in the icy sea. Others managed to escape on the keel that was swept away by the boat. Fishermen were the first to arrive from Paros after about two hours.

The “Greek Rescue Team” with the “Chiara” donated by the German Shipwreck Rescue Company and later Greek Coast Guard vessels were used to rescue the wrecks. Eventually, 63 people came ashore. The inhabitants of Paros provided them with the essentials. 16 bodies were retrieved, including three women and an infant.

The shipwrecked are treated like criminals

The survivors took refuge in the local vocational school. Officers confiscated their mobile phones and kept them as detainees. Contact with the outside world or even the press was prohibited in connection with criminal investigations. The injured shipwrecked were now considered illegal immigrants and were accused of human trafficking and complicity in the deaths of the drowned. They were not informed 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 locate the helmsmen.

Those seeking protection and wanting to travel to Europe are systematically deprived of the right of access to a fair asylum procedure in Greece – with the tacit tolerance of the European Union. Human rights activists, NGOs and journalists are increasingly subject to retaliation and attacks by the Greek government. This extends to deadly threats from the Greek far-right scene against the rescue teams, as the well-known naval rescuer Iasonas Apostolopoulos found himself.

Syros Odyssey from Germany

On December 27, police transferred the remaining 60 people seeking protection on the ship to Piraeus and from there to the Amygdaleza detention center. Weeks later, few were allowed to apply for asylum. Families and particularly vulnerable individuals were treated favorably and shared in other camps – what happened to them cannot be traced. Among them was Ibrahim B. The 31-year-old Syrian had lived in Leipzig as a “person with international protection status” for seven years. A trip to Greece, where he wanted to meet a relative he had not seen after his departure. Syria, was the overthrow of last year: Greek police seized his German papers and pushed him behind the river Evros in Turkey. Ibrahim B. was suddenly out and about without papers as an illegal immigrant. His attempt to obtain new documents in a short time from the German embassy In desperation, he decided to escape for the second time in his life: on the ship of the Cesme tragedy.

Quick test

Kheiraldin A., Abdallah J. and Mohammed B. had a different fate. They were imprisoned on the island of Chios as alleged “boatmen”. The port of Paros launched and destroyed the wrecked boat, which still contained the backpacks with the personal belongings of the shipwrecked. In the weeks that followed, more bodies were taken to Paros and other islands. Two of them were attributed to the shipwreck of Paros. The death toll in Paros rose to 18, including 23-year-old Rawad Mohamed Al-Ayedi. The young woman was from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and wanted to go with her family to Germany. German authorities in Jordan had granted asylum to her parents and four siblings, but not to Rawand because it was already normal. The coveted family reunion ended tragically in the Aegean.

The trial of the three defendants was set unusually quickly. It is not uncommon for defendants to wait years before being heard. Kheiraldin, Abdallah and Mohammed were now threatened with 18 life sentences for each single death and fines for each additional passenger on board. Borderline-europe, a Berlin-based NGO, paid for the defense and hired two Greek lawyers. Normally, at best, defendants are given a mandatory defense.

Challenged legal basis

Representatives of Border Europe, process observers and relatives of Geirandin and Mohamed traveled to the trial on May 4th.

The prosecutor pleaded guilty to the charges of “assisting in the illegal entry of third-country nationals at the risk of human life.” To the surprise of the defense, he criticized the legal basis. The law does not take into account cases such as those of the accused, who were forced to leave their countries of origin due to compelling circumstances and did not act for profit. The judges followed his assessment and acquitted the defendant of the charge of “causing a shipwreck” and “joining a criminal organization”. However, Kheiraldin was sentenced to 187 years in prison as the helmsman of the unfortunate boat and his two assistants to 126 years each.

439 years in prison

“Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case,” explains Julia Winkler of Border Europe. For years, refugees have been sentenced to extremely high prison terms under the pretext of combating trafficking in human beings. “The EU is not only forcing refugees to take life-threatening journeys, but it is unreasonably accusing them of doing so afterwards. As the example of Paros3 makes clear, the authorities know that those arrested are not ruthless criminals, but refugees. Nevertheless, they are doomed. “This practice of criminalization can therefore only be seen as a systematic, large-scale attempt to prevent people from entering the country,” said the human rights activist.

Defense attorney Dimitris Houlis was relieved and outraged at the same time: “Our clients are being sentenced to a total of 439 years in prison and we must attribute this to a ‘profit’ because they are escaping life imprisonment.” The law leads to the death and imprisonment of the most vulnerable. According to the lawyer, there is an urgent need to change the law: “Applying for asylum is not a crime” Lawyers have appealed The convicts’ spouses are now alone with their children.

sad anniversary

For the three Syrians, the May 5 hearing was a terrible day in many ways: the massacre in Banyias, the Syrian coastal city from which the refugees came, is almost exactly the ninth anniversary of the day. On May 3, 2013, government forces and paramilitaries killed at least 77 civilians there, including women and children. State media then reported that they had cleared the area of ​​terrorists. The previous day, pro-Assad forces had brutally killed at least 100 civilians in the neighboring al-Bayda community. Some sources even speak of 400 people. The men had fled with their families under these circumstances.

On the day of his sentencing, Mohammed received sadder news: a new list of people killed by the Assad regime had appeared in Syria – including his father’s name.

Alexandra Senfft

© Qantara.de 2022

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