Heroes Held Hostage: Arrest of Volunteer Refugee Rescue Team

Rescuers from the Spanish volunteer group ProemAid in Lesvos

**UPDATE: The rescuers from both ProemAid and Team Humanity were released on January 16th. While they are not being charged, the groups are required to post a guarantee of 5000 euros per person. If you’d like to contribute to the funds, follow the link below to Bienvenidos Refugiados Espana. https://www.paypal.me/BienvenidsRefugiados

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In Lesvos, I had the opportunity to volunteer alongside people from all over the world, working to save the lives of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, as they made the dangerous journey across the water from Turkey to Greece in an attempt to escape the horrific violence in their homelands. There were always whispers that those who worked out on the water were at risk of arrest, but the Greek police seemed to look the other way — a collective understanding that politics should not get in the way of saving human lives.

Yesterday, January 14th, this changed. Five volunteers working open-water rescue went out on an emergency call to locate a refugee boat in distress, adrift at sea between Greece and Turkey. Three of them, Kike, Manolo and Julio are firefighters from Spain and two are Danish rescuers working with the volunteer organization Team Humanity. While on their rescue vessel, they were arrested by the Greek coast guard and are now being detained on charges of “aiding illegal entry of foreigners into the country,” essentially human trafficking.

I personally witnessed the rescuers from these teams and others like them put their own lives at risk countless times to pull drowning people from the turbulent winter seas. If they are prevented from doing their work, we will continue to see those heartbreaking photos of the bodies of drowned children on the beach and have absolutely no one to blame but ourselves for turning a blind eye.

These volunteers will go in front of a judge at 10am (midnight, PT) tomorrow, January 16th. Per reports from their teams, they are being held in deplorable conditions -confined cells, no beds — and required to pay 1200 euros each for defense.

They should not be in jail. To be quite frank, their services shouldn’t even be required. As I have written before, the same path traveled by the refugees can be made by anyone with an American or EU passport for about $30. These rescuers are there to support the refugees who are not so lucky and are forced to make the terrible choice to risk their lives for the chance to live.

In the words of the refugee poet Warsan Shire:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire

Changes in the human condition can frequently outpace the changes in government and policy needed to serve them. In the case of the current refugee crisis, there has been a catastrophic failure of government to act in the best interest of humanity. If this attempt at stopping the humanitarian efforts succeeds, it will likely be a slippery slope that could impact the overall volunteer efforts and cause massive suffering within a population that has already survived more atrocities than any of us can imagine.

I’m very frequently asked, “how can I help?” and here is a great opportunity for you to take action.

· Share their story. People in this world are generally good, and will care if you give them a chance. Consider using the #ProemAidLibres hashtag.

If you want to know more about the type of work they do, check out this Sky News story from last night. Three children drowned unnecessarily and more would have been lost, if not for volunteer rescuers taking the same risks as their jailed counterparts. http://news.sky.com/story/1623626/sky-witnesses-distressing-migrants-rescue

· Sign These Petitions:

*https://www.change.org/p/cuanta-mas-presion-mas-accion-liberación-para-los-bomberos-de-sevilla

*http://www.skrivunder.net/free_team_humanity_and_proem_ain_members

  • Contact the Lesvos mayor’s office with your support of the volunteers. grafeiotypou@mytilene.gr
  • Keep your eye on the situation. These are small, independent groups without significant staffing or resources. I’ll post donation links for the defense funds, once those become available.