On 21 May, the pre-trial against the Iuventa crew begins in Sicily. While European sea rescuers and activists receive a lot of media attention and support when they are criminalised, the everyday practice of detaining migrants (exclusively men) facing the same charges goes almost unnoticed. Thousands of migrants are arrested and detained in Italy and Greece for alleged “smuggling” and “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”.
In Greece, aiding and abetting illegal entry is punished more severely than murder. There is the case of Hasan and N. Hasan is charged with people smuggling and threatened with up to 230 years in prison. He allegedly piloted a boat that was shipwrecked off Samos in November 2020. On board were also N. and his son, who did not survive the shipwreck. N. is charged because his 6-year-old son died during the escape – because he had put his child in danger by fleeing. Yet the shipwreck is neither Hasan’s nor N.’s fault. It is a direct result of the EU’s increasing border closures, which force people to risk their lives and those of their families. Their trial is on 18 May 2022.
There is the case of Amir and Razuli. They tried to reach Greece on an inflatable boat in March 2020. The Greek “coast guard” attacked the boat and tried to force it back into Turkish waters. After this failed, Amir and Razuli were arrested and arbitrarily charged with “smuggling” and “endangering human life” as well as for their own “illegal” entry. In September 2020, they were sentenced to 50 years in prison. Their appeal was postponed until 8 December 2022 due to “court congestion”.
Or the case of the #Paros3. On 5 May, a Greek court sentenced Kheiraldin, Abdallah and Mohamad to a total of 439 imprisonment for piloting a boat on their own escape. The boat capsized off the Greek island of Paros in December 2021, killing 18 people.
These migrants do what they are told to do by the EU: They come to European soil, in this case to the Greek islands, to apply for asylum. This is the normal process of being able to apply for asylum in Europe. However, as soon as they arrive, they are criminalised for exactly that. It is typical that the people who organise the crossing and earn money with it do not put themselves in danger and migrants are thus forced to steer the boat.
By criminalising the boat driver or any other person on the boat, the Greek authorities can pretend that their work against smugglers is successful. Because: the public is usually not interested in these people. In Greece, 2,000 to 3,000 people have been affected by this criminalisation in recent years. We don’t even know about many of the cases.
A Greek lawyer describes the typical procedure against migrants like this: When a person is detained, a lawyer takes a brief look at the case. After eight to twelve months, the case goes to trial. Ten minutes before the trial begins, the defendants see the lawyer again for the first time. The hearings last a few minutes. No witnesses, no evidence, quick verdict. There is no question of a fair trial that respects the applicable laws. The usual sentence: 5-15 years in prison for each person on the boat. With 30 people, this results in absurd sentences of over 200 years. Even if 12-20 years of this prison term actually have to be served, the psychological pressure of such a sentence is enormous. Especially for a crime that is not a crime and for which one is not guilty. For a crime without a victim. For who is the victim when people are transported from Libya to Italy or from Turkey to Greece at their own request?
The situation is similar in Italy. Migrants arrested in Italy are accused of aiding and abetting illegal migration, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison and heavy fines. Basic human rights are also violated in Italy. Migrants are often detained for months without even knowing the reason. There is a lack of information and translations. Migrants are charged on the basis of extremely weak evidence and unreliable witness testimony, the trials are rarely open to the public, and there is no adequate access to legal defence. The trials are political and the courts are strict. Also in Italy, these trials take place under the assumption that no one will care about the people and the rights violations they experience. In many detention centres it is not possible to apply for asylum. Therefore, pre-trial detention quickly turns into deportation detention.
In early April, the Court of Appeal in Palermo acquitted fourteen migrants who were detained in Italy from 2016 to 2018. They had been arrested in May 2016 immediately after their arrival in Sicily and accused of steering the boats with migrants and thus being guilty of aiding and abetting illegal entry. In a recent report, the NGO Arci Porco Rosso documented that more than 2,500 people have been detained in Italy since 2013 on charges of piloting a boat.
Groups like Arci Porco Rosso and Borderline Europe want to bring this systematic criminalisation of migration to the public. They give names to those affected, draw attention to their cases and provide legal support. We can support them in this, for example, with donations for legal aid or with high-profile actions and media work on the individual cases: Freedom for the #Samos2, Freedom for the Four Footballers, Freedom for the Moria6, Freedom for Amir & Razuli, Freedom for Hamza & Mohamed.
These political processes work because the public discourse follows the narrative: The deaths on the Mediterranean are the result of “people smuggling”. If this were finally stopped, the problem would be solved. But those who use this narrative and accuse people who steered a boat that was supposed to bring people to safety can no longer present themselves as defenders of human rights and certainly not as defenders of migrants’ rights. Naming the real perpetrators of the deaths in the Mediterranean, the European decision-makers and actors like Frontex, is the basis for a broad public resistance against this criminalisation.
People come to the borders for many reasons. They ask people there to bring them across the borders. Because it doesn’t work any other way. They are not being dragged across the borders against their will by smugglers from their places of origin in these cases discussed here. They are not making their way to Europe because of the smugglers. Every person has an individual reason for fleeing or migrating. Migration is a reality that we can only address with safe migration routes.