Posted on January 31, 2023

Migrant Aid Workers in Greece Could Face Years in Prison

Priyanka Shankar, DW, January 9, 2023

The trial of 24 aid workers who helped rescue migrants off the coast of Greece is set to begin on the Greek island of Lesbos on Tuesday, January 10.

The 24 defendants, including several foreign nationals, worked for the now defunct NGO Emergency Response Centre International — a search and rescue group operating on the island of Lesbos from 2016 to 2018 — and have been charged with facilitating illegal migration into the European Union, as well as other felonies.

Three of the defendants — Sarah Mardini, Sean Binder and Nassos Karakitsos, who were arrested in August 2018 — have already spent more than three months in pre-trial detention after providing lifesaving assistance to refugees.

They also face a raft of other charges including espionage, people smuggling, belonging to a criminal group and money laundering — felonies which can carry up to 25 years in a Greek prison.


The two dozen aid workers including Binder, Mardini and Karakitsos first stood trial in November 2021. But the case was adjourned within a few hours, with the Mytilene Misdemeanour Court ruling that it did not have jurisdiction since one of the defendants was also a lawyer.


Since the trial was adjourned more than a year ago, Binder said the prosecution has yet to address those issues — meaning the trial could end up being adjourned again on Tuesday. “Or the judge will say, well, we don’t see a problem here and proceed on the basis of an unfair trial. So the outcomes either way aren’t great, and that is frustrating,” he added.

Glykeria Arapi, Amnesty International’s Director in Greece, said this complex case is an attempt by Athens to criminalize humanitarian work and deter search and rescue missions.


Greece is one of the top entry points for migrants into the EU. The conservative government, in power since 2019, has expressed frustration that other EU countries are not sharing the burden of hosting asylum-seekers.

Over the past year, Greece’s crackdown on people showing solidarity with migrants has increased. The government has arrested those involved in search and rescue missions, and surveilled journalists who report on the government’s response to migration at its borders.

“There are so many people who come from anti-refugee families and if they volunteer and help people in need, they get abused when they go back home,” said Mardini in 2021. “This needs to stop and we should be protected under European law.”


Under international maritime law, saving lives at sea is not a crime and “the shipmaster has an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea without regard to their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found,” according to the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Michael Phoenix, a researcher supporting Mary Lawlor, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders, told DW that within the EU, there is no law which explicitly recognizes the work of human rights defenders nor does it effectively protect their rights.

“When human rights defenders are criminalized for acting or working in solidarity with migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, they’re most often accused of facilitating irregular entry or stay in a state,” he said.

Under international law, Phoenix said such an action is only considered criminal if there’s an intent to profit.

“The EU’s anti-smuggling framework isn’t completely in line with this because it doesn’t require the element of financial gain for facilitating irregular entry,” he said, adding that this has led to some EU states criminalizing acts of solidarity with migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers.

EU lawmaker and Irish politician Grace O’Sullivan thinks there needs to be a solidarity mechanism or EU law that recognizes the work of humanitarian workers like Mardini and Binder.


O’Sullivan is among more than 80 members of the European Parliament who have signed a letter asking the Greek government to drop the charges against the 24 humanitarian workers. Human rights groups across Europe have also organized solidarity protests ahead of the trial.