Volunteer Rescuers of Migrants Acquitted of Criminal Charges

The sheer humanity of people in the face of suffering and injustice will never cease to captivate and inspire me. A couple of days ago, five individuals — three Spaniards and two Danes — were acquitted of charges in Greece of facilitating illegal immigration into they country when they volunteered to save migrants during the height of the crisis last year. According to the New York Times:

“This is a strong signal to other NGOs and just people working for humanity,” said one of the Danish defendants, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, speaking by telephone after the verdict. “Saving lives is not a crime, rescuing people is not a crime.”

Mr. Aldeen said he was now eager to return home after nearly two years in Greece — his pretrial conditions included being barred from leaving the country. He continued working as a rescuer during that time, he said.

“I lost everything but I did not lose my humanity,” he said.

Along with Mr. Aldeen and another Dane, Mohammed el-Abassi, who also worked for Team Humanity, three Spanish firefighters who volunteered for the Spanish group Proem-Aid faced as many as 15 years in prison.

The five were arrested on Jan. 14, 2016, just a few hours after successfully rescuing 51 migrants, according to Mr. Aldeen, the owner of the boat on which the five were working.

Not long after their operation, the men said, they had alerted the Greek authorities to another migrant boat in trouble, without approaching it. They were arrested soon after. “We didn’t even see the boat,” Mr. Aldeen had contended.

Indeed, these courageous efforts were fraught with legal repercussions from the start: though they received a lot of support from civil societies groups from their own nations and across Europe, this was not the first time the volunteers faced criminal charges for helping migrants:

In Denmark, Team Humanity had raised money to help cover Mr. Aldeen’s legal fees, accusing the Greek government of treating him like a criminal for trying to help refugees.

Mr. Aldeen has been met with great sympathy in Denmark. Yet other well-meaning Danes have similarly faced legal jeopardy. After the 2015 refugee crisis, hundreds of Danes were convicted of human trafficking for offering asylum seekers a meal or a ride from towns near the German border to train stations and ports with connections to Sweden.

Mr. Aldeen, the son of an Iraqi father and a Moldovan mother, is himself a former asylum seeker who left Moldova at the age of 9 and grew up in Denmark. He said he traveled to Greece in September 2015 after televised images of a drowned Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a Turkish beach, inspired him to help.

The Kurdi family, like thousands of others who crossed or tried to cross the Aegean, were refugees from the war in Syria. Many, including children like Alan, continue to die.

“It changed my life,” Mr. Aldeen said, noting that he gave up plans to set up a small construction company and instead founded Team Humanity.

Unfortunately, their services — and those of thousands of others who had volunteered from all over the world the past two years — remain sorely need: Greece, which remains mired in economic and social problems, has warned of a potential new crisis at the country’s land border with Turkey, where three times as many migrants are coming through than last year. Fortunately, there is no shortage of brave and selfless people ready to line up and join the frontlines of humanitarian efforts.

 

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