The Current

He went to Greece to stop migrants from drowning. Now he's in court, facing prison

Seán Binder was among volunteers helping asylum seekers as they arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos, after they had crossed the Mediterranean by boat. He and 23 other volunteers were arrested over their efforts.

Arrests are 'chilling message' to humanitarian groups, says Human Rights Watch

A man stands in the foreground, outside in a public square. In the background, out of focus, several people hold protest signs.
Seán Binder at a demonstration against the volunteers' arrest, outside the parliament building in Athens in November 2021. (Louiza Vradi/Reuters)

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Update: Friday Jan. 13, 2023: Espionage charges against Seán Binder and 23 other volunteers were dropped Friday, according to RTÉ News, after the prosecution acknowledged serious issues with the case. The volunteers still face felony charges, separate from this week's trial, but no court date has been set.

Original story below.


Trained rescue diver Seán Binder travelled to Greece six years ago, to help migrants and refugees who got into distress making the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.

But within a year, he and another volunteer were arrested over what he described as an accusation that they were spies, who were caught "in a stolen military jeep trying to infiltrate a naval base to steal state secrets."

"I thought, that's pretty impressive, but this must be a joke. I've done nothing of the sort," said the Irishman, who joined humanitarian efforts in 2017 because he thought he had the practical water safety skills to help.

Binder was a volunteer with the Greek NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a search-and-rescue organization that has since disbanded. He was arrested by Greek authorities in Feb. 2018, and now faces charges of espionage, forgery, trafficking and being part of a criminal organization. None of the charges have been proven in court; the trial started Tuesday.

I was handcuffed to murderers, all because I provided some very basic search and rescue.- Seán Binder

He spent three and a half months in pre-trial detention in 2018, before being released on €5,000 ($7,200 Cdn) bail, to await trial.

"I was handcuffed to murderers, all because I provided some very basic search and rescue to people who have a fundamental right to receive it," Binder told The Current's Matt Galloway.

He said that at the time, ERCI had two search-and-rescue boats and a medical clinic in operation, but while the operation may sound dramatic, he "did very little" for the most part.

"I offered perhaps a smile and a warm blanket to someone … fleeing the kinds of conflict that I could never dream of surviving," he said.

"That's what's so frightening, because if I can be criminalized for handing out a bottle of water … then it will be a criminal act when you hand out a bottle of water, or show the smallest gesture of kindness to people."

A man and woman sit side by side. He is looking at her, she is looking to camera.
Binder was arrested with Sarah Mardini, herself a Syrian refugee who crossed into Europe by sea. (John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)

Charges baseless, should be dropped: Amnesty

Binder is among two dozen volunteers on trial. Among them is Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee who herself survived a hazardous sea crossing with her sister, who went on to swim at the Olympics.

This week's trial concerns charges of espionage and forgery, which carry penalties of up to eight years in prison. The court in Greece is expected to decide Friday whether the trial should continue. 

There is also an ongoing investigation into charges of assisting smuggling networks, membership of a criminal organization and money laundering, which carry sentences of up to 20 years. 

Amnesty International has called all the charges baseless, calling for them to be dropped. 

The Current asked the Greek embassy in Canada for comment on the case and charges, but did not receive a response.

Binder said he has proof to dispel many of the charges. For accusations that he helped people enter the country illegally, he said he can show that in half of those cases he had not yet arrived in Greece. He also said he has proof that he and other volunteers were in contact with local authorities, co-ordinating efforts to bring people ashore safely, and even offering training.

WATCH | Rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea: 

Rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea

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Duration 1:57
Dozens of migrants pack into small boats hoping to be rescued and taken to Europe.

He said that in an ideal world, there would be no need for search-and-rescue operations, because nobody would be drowning. In a better world, he thinks official authorities would step up to the task.

"But in the world that we live in, unfortunately, it was 20-something-year-olds like myself who had to train some of these officers how to do basic CPR," he said.

He finds that "deeply troubling," arguing that "we have a responsibility to protect people who are at risk of drowning." 

"That's really what this all boils down to. No one should be abandoned to die."

Safe routes stop smuggling: Binder

This court case is intended to send "a chilling message" to humanitarian organizations, said Giulia Tranchina, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who looks at migration and asylum in Europe. 

"[It's] to deter them, scare them, to make sure they stop helping, rescuing and providing basic acts of solidarity and humane assistance to vulnerable refugees," she said.

WATCH | Rich nations need non-discriminatory systems for refugees: UNHCR: 

Rich nations must develop non-discriminatory systems to manage refugees: UNHCR

10 months ago
Duration 13:50
Rosemary Barton Live speaks to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in an exclusive interview about the refugee crisis in Ukraine and Afghanistan. He says the number of displaced people around the world is well over 90 million.

She added that the charges "perversely misrepresent" search-and-rescue operations as illegal people smuggling rings.

Binder pointed out that legally, a refugee must be in their would-be host country to claim asylum — but with land borders closed, desperate people have little choice but to make perilous crossings by sea. 

"If we truly want to stop smuggling, as I believe we should, then let's provide safe routes for asylum," he said.

Italy's new rules 'completely inhumane': aid worker

In neighbouring Italy, legislation introduced last week has also affected how these organizations operate. Ships must now report to a port after a single rescue — rather than staying out at sea to conduct further rescues if needed. The ships are assigned specific ports to dock at, some of which are very far away from where they conduct rescues.

Caroline Willemen, deputy head of mission for search and rescue with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said the rules are making rescues "more complicated than they have to be."

The Geo Barents, run by MSF, is seen in the port of Catania, Italy on Nov. 7, 2022. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)

Willemen was aboard Geo Barents, a MSF rescue ship, when it docked at Ancona Thursday, with 73 rescued people. Ancona is on Italy's central eastern coast — about three days away from Sicily, where ships previously docked. MSF requested a closer dock, but was denied.

"People had to sail an additional four days in incredibly bad weather, people were very sick," said Willemen.

She said the move was "completely inhumane … cruel and unnecessary," adding that it would have been much faster for the migrants to dock in the south and travel to Ancona by bus.

"None of this will deter people from getting in those boats … they are fleeing torture, they're fleeing the most horrible abuses you have ever heard about," she said.

"They will keep coming. If we are not there to rescue them, they will be taken back to Libya or they will drown. And that's the reality that we're facing."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Padraig Moran

Journalist

Padraig Moran is a writer and digital producer for CBC Radio’s The Current, taking great stories from the airwaves to our online audience. He started his journalism career in Ireland primarily covering arts and entertainment, then spent five years at The Times of London in the U.K., before joining the CBC when he moved to Toronto in 2017. You can reach him at padraig.moran@cbc.ca.

Audio produced by Ben Jamieson, Joana Draghici and Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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