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Seán Binder and Sara Mardini
Humanitarian workers Seán Binder and Sara MardiniFree Humanitarians

On the frontline of Europe’s war on migrant solidarity

‘No one should be left to drown’: Dazed speaks with Seán Binder, a search-and-rescuer who, along with his colleagues Sara Mardini and Nassos Karakitsos, is now facing 20 years imprisonment for helping refugees

Two international rescue divers are facing 20 years imprisonment as a result of their humanitarian work in Greece, where they worked as first responders for migrants and refugees making dangerous journeys to the Island of Lesvos. After their first trial was adjourned in 2021, due to the procedural errors made by the prosecution, Seán Binder, 28, and Sara Mardini, 27, returned to Lesvos this week to stand trial once more. Alongside their Greek colleague Nassos Karakitsos (42) and 21 others, they are accused of espionage, facilitating illegal entry, money laundering and a litany of other spurious charges. Earlier today, it was announced that the trial has not been adjourned for a second time, and will proceed this week.

According to their lawyer, this is the first case of its kind in Europe where humanitarian help has been officially criminalised by the state. Despite three years of investigations, the prosecution has failed to find any evidence whatsoever of criminal purpose. Incredibly, one of the charges is that they used “encrypted messages“, specifically WhatsApp – an app that is used by two billion people worldwide. 

Mardini and Binder were first arrested while volunteering for the Greek non-profit organisation, the Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI). This wasn’t some rabble-rousing protest group – in fact, what made their arrest so surprising was the fact that they had been working closely with the authorities the whole time. The work mostly involved being stationed on the coast and keeping a look out for signs of distress. Most of the time, search-and-rescue wasn’t required.

Their arrest in 2018 came without warning. They were driven back to Mytilini, the capital of Lesvos, where they were imprisoned overnight. The following morning, Sarah was left behind under armed guard, while Binder was taken to the ERCI’s warehouse, which was filled with the kind of medical equipment which any search-and-rescue organisation would have. The police began a painstaking search, by which point it became clear they were determined to find something incriminating. Afterwards they went to Binder’s home, where a police officer began sifting through his baking flour, presumably in search of drugs. They didn’t find anything.

They were released the following morning pending further investigation. At this point, says Binder, they thought it was a bit of a joke – they hadn’t done anything wrong and had worked together with the authorities for years. But rather than being an unfortunate administrative error, the arrest turned out to be the beginning of a nightmarish five-year process.

While Binder and Mardini were released on bail after 100 days of confinement, the threat of imprisonment has been hanging over them ever since. As well as the “emotional and psychological costs”, Binder has been turned down for jobs on the basis that prospective employers, even though assured of his innocence, couldn’t know whether he would still be in the country in a week, month or year’s time. “I would like to have a family at some point, but I won’t have children if there’s a chance I’ll be in prison for 20 years of their life,” he tells Dazed.

Their arrest was the result of a dramatic about-turn in Greece’s policy towards search-and-rescue – a result of a Europe-wide reframing of the issue of migration. “In 2015, we saw the beginning of the so-called ‘migration crisis’, and the European response to it was characterised by a humanitarian approach,” he says. “But in 2016, attitudes hardened. At that point, the European Union no longer viewed it as an issue of a humanitarian crisis, but as one of illegality. We’d gone from helping refugees to trying to stop the smuggling of ‘illegal immigrants’.”

This was the point at which Frontex [a coordinated European border guard agency] was significantly expanded and began operations with the whole aim of stopping smuggling. From then on, governments across Europe largely stopped viewing refugees as refugees. “They are now illegal immigrants and smuggled illegal immigrants at that. Suddenly, there is no place for search and rescue, because it no longer fits into that narrative.”

When Binder was first imprisoned, he began to wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. “I was feeling sorry for myself and, frankly, I was also furious because I was in prison for doing what the European Union always harps on about doing in the rest of the world, which is following the rule of law,” he says. “So I started to question whether I was actually the problem. Was it possible that Europe was doing the right thing all along and I was inadvertently doing something illegal?” He asked his parents and friends to send him research around migration, including the Frontex Risk Analysis Reports which was published in 2017 and helped to popularise the idea of the “pull factor”.

I was in prison for doing what the European Union always harps on about doing in the rest of the world, which is following the rule of law” – Seán Binder

Across Europe, including here in the UK, this concept is commonly used to argue against the legitimacy of search-and-rescue operations. It implies that even if search-and-rescuers aren’t purposefully trying to create illegal migration pathways, they do so indirectly by making the waters safer. Put simply: if the journeys are perceived to be safe, then more migrants will make them, and more people will die as a result. But delving deeper into the available data, he soon realised that the ‘pull factor’ is simply not backed up by evidence. “There has been a lot of research on this and there is zero correlation between the amount of search-and-rescue and the amount of smuggling happening alongside it,” he says.

The irony is that Europe’s switch to anti-smuggling policies, rather than humanitarian ones, has exacerbated the market for smuggling. “It’s actually quite simple,” Binder continues. “Conflicts exist. That’s a fact. And to seek asylum, you must be in the host country. You can’t apply for asylum visas, because we don’t offer them, and we make our land borders incredibly difficult to cross. So what have we done? We have pushed people into the hands of smugglers.”

At the same time, Binder is not interested in defending the practice of smuggling. “It isn’t a good thing,” he says. “I’ve seen the horrendous conditions that smugglers cram children into. These are not nice people; they are profiting off people’s misery. But if you truly want to stop it, you need to try to offer safe routes first.” Whether someone deserves asylum and whether they deserve to drown in the ocean are entirely separate questions. On the one hand, people claiming asylum are almost always doing so out of desperation, having fled conflict and human rights abuses. “I think that’s true, the vast majority of the time,” says Binder.

“I have occasionally encountered people who have gone on to claim asylum and later told me that they weren’t actually in danger and just wanted to come to Europe,” he says. “But the point is that even if that were the case for 100 per cent of people, that doesn’t mean anyone should be abandoned to drown. It’s as though people think, ‘if migrants survive the Mediterranean then they should be given the chance to seek asylum.’ No, every human individual has the right to life. They have the right to seek asylum. We have a duty to rescue them if they need it – whether or not they eventually get asylum is neither here nor there.”

If Binder, Mardini and Karakitsos are prosecuted, the implications for humanitarian workers across Europe could be grim. “It’s not really about our case,” says Binder. “If I go to prison, then that will suck for me. But the point is that what I did isn’t all that special. Most of the time, despite the flashy images that charities like to share about search-and-rescue, I was just standing there on the shoreline, with a bottle of water in one hand and a blanket on the other, and offering a smile, because most people are survivors and didn’t need my help. And if that tiny act of kindness can be criminalised, that’s the frightening thing. It’s not me that's on trial, it’s the principle that human rights exist and the very rule of law.”

“I was just standing there on the shoreline, with a bottle of water in one hand and a blanket on the other, and offering a smile... if that tiny act of kindness can be criminalised, that’s the frightening thing” – Seán Binder

Across Europe, the response to refugees and migrants is growing more punitive, with the rise of far-right parties in Italy and Sweden, and the UK’s own cartoonishly villainous Rwanda Plan, to name just a few examples. For Binder, the issue of migration is tied up with a larger set of problems. “It’s about the derogation of the rule of law in general, not just as it pertains to asylum and refugees,” he says. “If we look at Hungary and Poland, we see that journalists are being squished into smaller and smaller confines, we see that feminist groups are being forced into smaller spaces. In the UK, policies around anti-protest measures were a response to Black Lives Matter and environmental activists.”

Rather than seeing Europe’s response to migration as a single issue, we should understand it as part of a wider authoritarian drift. “There is a general diminishment of the civic space that we see in Greece and Italy, across the EU and in the UK,” says Binder. “It’s frightening and it risks all of our freedom, not just that of migrants or asylum seekers.”

If you would like to support the Free Humanitarians campaign, you can write to your MP, sign their petition, or donate on their website. Sounds of Solidarity, meanwhile, are organising a wide range of events and actions to support migrant rights in the UK.