CASE: 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.
In April 2019 GLAN supported Salam Aldeen, founder of the non-profit Team Humanity, to file an unprecedented application with the European Court of Human Rights challenging Greece’s crackdown on NGOs rescuing refugees at sea.
The European Court of Human Rights has, however, "decided to declare [Salam Aldeen’s] application ... inadmissible", without any reasoning or argumentation, and in a "single-judge formation". In doing, the Court disregarded the importance of this being the first case of a human rights defender being wrongfully criminalized for solidarity-based rescue action that reaches Strasbourg.
This is particularly regrettable, since this 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 maritime 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 human rights protection in the Mediterranean and beyond, which is being filled by other actors with unknown or dubious human rights records, including the infamous Libyan coastguard.
Salam's case is not unique. A recent report by ReSOMA outlines a trend of ‘blaming the rescuers’ regarding search and rescue missions. Most NGOs performing search and rescue operations still do not have a permanent presence at sea, having been forced to stop their humanitarian activities. For example, in May 2017, MRCC Rome withdrew the rescue ship IUVENTA despite the urgent need for intervention as several migrant boats were in distress.
As the SAROBMED: The Search and Rescue Observatory for the Mediterranean has documented, 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 High 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 prosecution and criminalisation.
The practice of criminalising humanitarianism extends across Europe. According to the research platform ReSOMA, while a majority of individuals involved in humanitarian action criminalised since 2015 have been based near the Mediterranean:, 53 in Greece, 38 in Italy and 31 in Spain, criminalisation has extended expanded northwards in Europe, with 6 individuals prosecuted in Germany, 9 in Denmark and 12 in Belgium also criminalised for solidarity-based conduct considered to amount to migrant smuggling or the facilitation of unauthorised stay.
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. Salam Aldeens'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, Mr Salam Aldeen has worked to promote the rights of refugees on Lesbos.
With Team Humanity, he has routinely contributed to operational efforts by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG), participating in over 150 missions, rescuing up to 200 persons a day.
Salam Aldeen giving his testimony to the European Parliament in November 2017.
Following a two-and-a-half-year legal ordeal and acquittal in the Greek courts, a team of lawyers with the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) led by Dr Violeta Moreno-Law, acting on behalf of Salam Aldeen, founder of the non-profit Team Humanity, filed an unprecedented application with the European Court of Human Rights 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 by the Turkish authorities by the time the Team Humanity arrived close to the border of Greek territorial waters, Mr Aldeen and his crew were arrested and charged with attempted smuggling. Their rescue vessel was confiscated and severe restrictive measures were imposed on the volunteers.
The application filed with the Strasbourg court exposed the illegality of the Greek authorities’ crackdown on human rights defenders working to preserve the integrity of the international system of search and rescue binding on captains of all vessels to render assistance to persons in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality or legal status. It challenges the reliance by Greece on sanctions and anti-smuggling regulations to bring solidarity-based humanitarian action to a halt. Also questioned is the legitimacy of Greece’s conduct exposing Mr Aldeen to a minimum ten years’ imprisonment for his life-saving activities. Such repressive measures, aimed ultimately at curbing unwanted 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 the Irish Centre for Human Rights and two independent Greek lawyers, Danai Papachristopoulou and Zoe Kasapi. Their submission used evidence compiled from Mr Aldeen’s dealings with the Greek courts and 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.