He went to Greece to prevent migrants from drowning. Now he’s in court, facing the prison | TBEN radio


The current20:01Volunteers are on trial in Greece for helping migrants and refugees in distress at sea

Trained rescue diver Seán Binder traveled to Greece six years ago to help migrants and refugees in distress during the perilous crossing from the Mediterranean to Europe.

But within a year he and another volunteer were arrested over what he described as an accusation that they were spies, caught “in a stolen military jeep attempting to infiltrate a naval base to steal state secrets”.

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“I thought, that’s pretty impressive, but this must be a joke. I haven’t done anything of the sort,” said the Irishman, who joined humanitarian aid services in 2017 because he thought he had gained practical skills in the field of water safety to help.

Binder was a volunteer with the Greek NGO Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a search and rescue organization that has since been dissolved. He was arrested by the Greek authorities in February 2018 and is now charged with espionage, forgery, human trafficking and participation in a criminal organization. None of the charges have been proven in court; the trial began Tuesday.

I was enthralled with killers, all because I had done some very basic search and rescue.– Sean Binder

He spent three and a half months in pre-trial detention in 2018 before being released for €5,000 ($7,200 Cdn) bail, pending trial.

“I was enthralled with killers all because I’ve delivered some very basic search and rescue to people who have a fundamental right to receive it,” Binder said. The current Matt Galloway.

He said ERCI had two search and rescue boats and a medical clinic in operation at the time, but while the operation may sound dramatic, for the most part it did “very little”.

“I may have offered a smile and a warm blanket to someone… fleeing the kind of conflict I never dreamed I would survive,” he said.

“That’s so frightening because if I can be punished for handing out a bottle of water…

Binder was arrested along with Sarah Mardini, herself a Syrian refugee who entered Europe by sea. (John MacDougall/TBEN via Getty Images)

Charge unfounded, to be dropped: amnesty

Binder is one of twenty volunteers on trial. Among them is Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee who herself survived a dangerous sea crossing with her sister, who went swimming at the Olympics.

This week’s trial centers on charges of espionage and forgery, which carry sentences of up to eight years in prison. The court in Greece is expected to decide on Friday whether the trial should continue.

There is also an ongoing investigation into charges of aiding smuggling networks, membership in a criminal organization and money laundering, which carry sentences of up to 20 years.

Amnesty International called all charges baseless and called for them to be dropped.

The current asked the Greek Embassy in Canada for comment on the case and charges, but received no response.

Binder said he has evidence to refute many of the allegations. For allegations that he helped people enter the country illegally, he said he could prove that in half of those cases he had not yet arrived in Greece. He also said he has evidence that he and other volunteers were in contact with local authorities, coordinating efforts to land people safely and even offering training.

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He said that in an ideal world there would be no search and rescue operations because no one would drown. In a better world, he thinks, the official authorities would take on the task.

“But in the world we live in, unfortunately it was 20-year-olds like me who had to train some of these officers in basic CPR,” he said.

He finds that “deeply disturbing”, arguing that “we have a responsibility to protect people who are at risk of drowning”.

“That’s what it all comes down to really. No one should be left to die.”

Safe routes stop smuggling: Binder

This lawsuit is intended to send “a chilling message” to humanitarian organizations, said Giulia Tranchina, a Human Rights Watch researcher who studies migration and asylum in Europe.

“[It’s] to deter them, to frighten them, to make them stop helping, rescuing and providing basic acts of solidarity and humane assistance to vulnerable refugees,” she said.

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She added that the charges “perversely misrepresent search and rescue operations” as illegal people smugglers.

Binder pointed out that by law a refugee must be in their future host country to apply for asylum, but with land borders closed, desperate people have little choice but to make dangerous sea crossings.

“If we really want to stop smuggling, as I think we should, let’s provide safe routes for asylum,” he said.

New rules Italy ‘completely inhuman’: aid worker

In neighboring Italy, the legislation introduced last week also affects the way these organizations operate. Ships must now report to a port after a single rescue – rather than staying at sea to carry out further rescues if necessary. The ships are assigned specific ports to dock at, some of which are very far from where they are conducting rescues.

Caroline Willemen, deputy head of the search and rescue mission at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said the rules make rescues “more complicated than they need to be”.

The Geo Barents, run by MSF, is seen in the port of Catania, Italy on November 7, 2022. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)

Willemen was on board Geo Barentsz, an MSF rescue ship, when it docked in Ancona on Thursday, with 73 people rescued. Ancona is on the central east coast of Italy – about three days away from Sicily, where ships used to dock. MSF asked for a closer landing stage, but was refused.

“People had to sail an extra four days in incredibly bad weather, people were very sick,” says Willemen.

She said the move was “completely inhumane … cruel and unnecessary”, adding that it would have been much quicker for the migrants to dock in the south and travel to Ancona by bus.

“None of this is going to stop people from getting into those boats…they’re fleeing torture, they’re fleeing the most horrific abuses you’ve ever heard of,” she said.

“They will keep coming. If we are not there to save them, they will be returned to Libya or drowned. And that is the reality we face.”