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Lesvos: Spanish firefighters, Danish NGO members accused of smuggling refugees

Three Spanish firefighters and two Danes, all members of non-governmental organizations, stand trial on the island of Lesvos on Monday. Greek authorities accuse them of smuggling refugees into the island of Eastern Aegean Sea and into the European Union in January 2016.

The accused say they were only trying to help refugees in danger of drowning, but authorities say no life was at risk. They face sentences up to 10 years in prison.

The authorities say the firefighters “attempted to smuggle people into Greece” because “the night (they refer to) they didn’t have anyone on board,” Manuel Blanco, one of the firefighters and vice-president of the Spanish NGOs Proemaid, told Euronews.

“If a person is drowning and you bring them ashore to try and save them, that can be seen as facilitating their entry,” said Blanco. This, in his opinion, blurs the fine line between human trafficking and humanitarian aid.

Blanco and his colleagues, Julio Latorre, and Enrique Rodriguez, from Seville, Spain, have helped out in multiple refugee rescue missions. Now they are very worried about the situation.

“We are not smugglers. We are rescuers doing humanitarian work to help the local authorities who don’t have the capacity to help the huge number of Syrian refugees escaping the war.”

The first time Blanco joined the rescue missions in Greece was in December 2015, at the peak of the humanitarian crisis and the last one was in 2017, after his detention by local authorities.

Not leaving the island after being detained was the “the best way to prove that we weren’t doing anything wrong,” he said.

“How you can compare a person who smuggles people for money with rescuers who save people’s lives?” asks Blanco.

The other two offenders, two Danish men of Arab origin, Salam Aldeen and Mohammed El Abbassi, and members of NGO Team Humanity, argue similarly. They had  sailed out to help refugees struggling to shore in a floundering boat.

“We heard that a boat was sinking,” El Abbassi told DR Nyheder. “We hurried out and jumped in our wetsuits and life jackets.”

El Abbassi said they contacted the Coast Guard on the way to the boat, but were told they could not come. On the way back, they were stopped by the Coast Guard and arrested.

They later learned the refugees had been rescued.

In 2015, Aldeen created the Team Humanity organisation, which aims to help refugees. El-Abassi was assisting Aldeen in Greece when he was arrested.

The two men were released on bail after spending two days in jail. El-Abassi was permitted to travel back to Denmark, while Aldeen was told to stay in Greece.

“The arrest was so idiotic,” said El-Abassi. “It is so unfair and cynical to arrest people like us who are trying to make the world a better place.”

He believes he is innocent of the accusation of smuggling levelled by the Greek prosecutor.

“We can prove we have not been near the Turkish border,” he said.

“I would never risk my life by sailing into Turkish waters to save people.”

Aldeen’s lawyer Christian Dahlager said the men face up to three-five years in prison if they are convicted.

“I think it is a perverted concept of human smuggling to accuse those who help people in danger of drowning,” he said.

The verdict is expected this week.

Lesbos became the face of the worst refugee crisis to hit Europe since World War II. Between January 2015 and February 2016, 937.000 people crossed into Greece from Turkey. About half of them arrived to the island of Lesbos according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).



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One comment

  1. I weep as i read about these people…because i´m exhausted and disgusted with the EU´s treacherous policies. When i see people who cannot forgo what their hearts and conscience dictate, i am grateful to them. “Courage”,in its original form, comes from the word “cor”, which is Latin for heart. Courage demands you have a heart in the first place.Thank you, thank you, thank you. For standing up to this madness.