Greece's crackdown on humanitarian organisations
[Warning: Distressing images]
A Euronews report from 2018 interviewing Salam Aldeen, chronicling his work and arrest, months before he was due to face trial.
There is a growing trend in Greece and Europe of criminalising solidarity. Rescue however is not a crime; it is a binding duty under international law. Humanitarian assistance of persons in distress at sea is being repeatedly prosecuted in courts, as occurred when the Greek authorities pursued the founder of Team Humanity Salam Kamal-Aldeen.
GLAN filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the illegality of the Greek authorities’ crackdown on human rights defenders working to preserve the integrity of the international system of search and rescue, which obliges all captains of all vessels to render assistance to persons in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality or legal status.
In April 2019, GLAN supported Salam Kamal-Aldeen, founder of the non-profit Team Humanity, to file an unprecedented application to the European Court of Human Rights challenging Greece’s crackdown on NGOs rescuing refugees at sea, using criminal law to pre-empt their activity.
The European Court of Human Rights has, however, "decided to declare [Salam Kamal-Aldeen’s] application ... inadmissible" in July 2019 without any reasoning or argumentation, and in a "single-judge formation". In doing so, the Court disregarded the importance of this being the first case of a human rights defender wrongfully criminalized for solidarity-based rescue action that reaches Strasbourg. According to GLAN case lead Violeta Moreno-Lax of Queen Mary, University of London, “the Strasbourg Court missed the opportunity to condemn the growing trend in Greece and Europe of criminalizing solidarity. Rescue is not a crime; it is a binding duty of international law. Rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea should never be prosecuted”.
This is particularly regrettable, since the move indirectly legitimizes governmental policy that contributes to the shrinking of political space in Europe for civil society organizations to discharge their mandate and assist migrants in distress at sea. It reinforces the impression – contested by the same Court (e.g. in Medvedyev § 81) – that the “the special nature of the maritime environment … [can] justify an area outside the law where ships’ crews are covered by no legal system capable of affording them enjoyment of the rights and guarantees protected by the [European] Convention [on Human Rights]” and it pays lip service to the duty to rescue at sea recognised in customary international law.
The Court’s failure to provide a reasoned decision follows a worrying trend, wherein those engaging in solidarity with vulnerable migrants are criminalised. The result is an emerging vacuum in rescue and human rights protection, which is being filled by other actors with unknown or dubious human rights records, including the infamous Libyan Coast Guard.
SAROBMED: The Search and Rescue Observatory for the Mediterranean documentation work shows that Salam's case is not unique. The Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union has been tracking this development for the past few years, which the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has forcefully denounced in one of her latest reports. Since the first case, in August 2017, when Italy seized the rescue ship IUVENTA operated by Jugend Rettet on accusations of facilitation of irregular migration, this trend of “blaming the rescuers” has spiralled to the point that most NGOs performing search and rescue operations at sea have been forced to stop their activities for fear of or due to actual prosecution and criminalisation. Data collected by the research platform ReSOMA, to which GLAN has contributed, shows the practice of policing and criminalising humanitarianism extends across Europe.
Twitter Summary (5 tweets)
In recent years, especially since the outbreak of the “refugee crisis” in 2015, the EU environment surrounding sea rescue has become increasingly harsh and restrictive. This has included amendments to various laws in several Member States, including Greece, which has seen the introduction of additional registration and reporting formalities for NGOs assisting migrants and refugees; instances of harassment and police intimidation; undue arrest and detention; and public smear campaigns in the press and social media.
This has made it increasingly difficult for rescue NGOs to operate at sea, to the point that there are no longer any civil society organisations actively and publicly pursuing maritime rescue in Greece. Salam Kamal-Aldeen's application, therefore, bore the potential of restoring the confidence of human rights defenders in the Mediterranean basin that their work will not result in criminalization.
Since arriving in Greece, after the body of Alan Kurdi was washed ashore in September 2015, Salam Kamal-Aldeen has worked to promote the rights of refugees on Lesbos. With Team Humanity, he routinely contributed to operational efforts by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG), participating in over 150 missions, rescuing up to 200 persons a day, until his arrest and prosecution on 14 January 2016.
Salam Aldeen giving his testimony to the European Parliament in November 2017.
Following a two-and-a-half-year legal battle and acquittal in the Greek courts, a team of lawyers with the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) led by Violeta Moreno-Lax, acting on behalf of Salam Kamal-Aldeen, founder of the non-profit Team Humanity, filed an unprecedented application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg challenging Greece’s crackdown on the search and rescue actors of refugees at sea. On 14 January 2016, Mr Aldeen was operating a rescue boat, the Team Humanity, from the island of Lesbos, helping the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) to locate and assist three migrant dinghies in distress. Although these had already been intercepted and pulled back by the Turkish authorities by the time the Team Humanity arrived close to the rim of Greek territorial waters, Mr Aldeen and his crew were arrested and charged with “attempted smuggling”. The investigative judge ruled on the basis of Mr Aldeen “having decided to commit”, “with decision and intent” and “as a repeated crime”, the felony of illegal transport of irregular migrants into Greek territory without authorisation in the degree of tentative. No proof was adduced, the judge referring to Mr Aldeen’s use of “rescue as a pretext”. Their rescue vessel was (and remains) confiscated and severely restrictive measures were imposed on Mr Aldeen and his crew, which remain unremedied to date.
The application filed with the Strasbourg Court exposed the illegality of the Greek authorities’ crackdown on human rights defenders who are working to preserve the integrity of the international system of search and rescue, under which captains of all vessels are bound to render assistance to persons in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality or legal status. The application thus challenges Greece’s reliance on sanctions and anti-smuggling regulations to bring solidarity-based humanitarian action to a halt. Also questioned was the legitimacy of Greece’s conduct exposing Mr Aldeen to a minimum of ten years’ imprisonment for his life-saving activities. Such repressive measures, aimed at curbing maritime crossings, have been adopted as part of the implementation of the EU-Turkey “deal” of March 2016.
GLAN filed the legal application with support from the Irish Centre for Human Rights and two independent Greek lawyers, Danai Papachristopoulou and Zoe Kasapi. The submission draws from Violeta Moreno-lax’ academic research and is based on evidence compiled by the Search and Rescue Observatory for the Mediterranean (SAROBMED), including documents obtained by Mr Aldeen from the Greek courts and other authorities, as well as reports from international and non-governmental organisations, documenting the shift in policy in Greece and the European Union to criminalise rescue at sea.
Mr Aldeen’s prosecution was part of a targeted, repressive move against rescue NGOs in the EU. In recent years, especially since the outbreak of the “refugee crisis” in 2015, the EU environment surrounding sea rescue has become increasingly harsh and restrictive. This has included amendments to various laws in several Member States, including Greece, which has seen the introduction of additional registration and reporting formalities; instances of harassment and police intimidation; undue arrest and detention; and public smear campaigns in the press and social media.
This has made it increasingly difficult for rescue NGOs to operate at sea, to the point that there are no longer any civil society organisations actively and publicly pursuing maritime rescue in Greece. This application, therefore, sought to restore the confidence of human rights defenders in the Mediterranean basin that their work will not result in criminalization.