After 28 Months, a Nightmare Is Over: Sea Rescue Volunteers Acquitted of Trafficking Charges
This is the story of five international volunteers accused of trafficking by the Greek authorities.
Five humanitarian workers returned to Lesvos this week to stand trial for their volunteer actions helping asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. The volunteers, three Spanish firefighters from the organization PROEM-AID and two Danes from Team Humanity, were arrested after attempting to rescue asylum seekers off the coast of Lesvos in January 2016. They were indicted on charges of human trafficking and faced up to ten years in prison if convicted. However, the Spanish and Danish volunteers were cleared of all charges in their trial on Monday.
According to Manuel Blanco, Vice President of PROEM-AID and one of the accused, the team of professional volunteer firefighters had been operating on Lesvos for over a month before their arrest. In this time, Blanco says that PROEM-AID registered their presence on the island, followed all legal procedures, and secured permission from the Hellenic Coast Guard before every single rescue operation. Interviewed before his trial, Blanco appeared confident that the law was on his side:
“I believe that we will be acquitted and cleared of all charges, because we haven’t done anything wrong, beyond saving lives in the Mediterranean. We were saving lives of people who would have otherwise died. When we do a rescue, we always make contact with the Greek Coast Guard to inform them and ask for authorization.
It is also important to refer to maritime law, which articulates that any boat within reach of another in distress has the obligation to help, regardless of that boat’s flag or where it is sinking. International law defends, supports, and establishes that we must perform sea rescue. If we do not, we are committing a crime of omission.”
During the time of the volunteers’ arrest, average arrivals to Lesvos exceeded 1000 people everyday. Due to such high arrival rates in 2015 and early 2016, volunteers were crucial in the effort to save the lives of people crossing the Mediterranean on decrepit or flimsy boats that often sank before reaching Greece’s shores. According to the Hellenic Coast Guard, 96 people died and 34 went missing in Greek territorial waters in January 2016 alone.
Blanco is not sure exactly why his team’s rescue efforts on January 14, 2016 resulted in their arrest, detention, and criminal charges. At that time, volunteers’ maritime rescue efforts were globally regarded as lifesaving and heroic. Certain Greek sea rescuers even won the UN Nansen Refugee Award, while other rescuers were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. European Commissioner President Jean-Claude Juncker even praised refugee aid volunteers in his 2015 State of the Union address, saying that they help create “the Europe I want to live in.”
Though many of the 80+ NGOs and thousands of independent volunteers on Lesvos did not register their activities with local authorities, Blanco says that PROEM-AID registered their presence on the island, followed all legal procedures, and secured permission from the Hellenic Coast Guard before every single rescue operation.
On January 14, 2016, Blanco and his team responded to an early morning call from Team Humanity, alerting them to a migrant boat in distress. Although they could not find the boat, the team was arrested by the Coast Guard on the way back to shore. Blanco, along with fellow PROEM-AID firefighters Julio Latorre and José Enrique Rodríguez and Team Humanity Volunteers Mohammed Abbassi and Salam Aldeen, spent 68 hours in a jail cell, unsure of what charges they faced.
The volunteers were accused of illegally attempting to facilitate human trafficking from Turkey to Greece without authorization from the Hellenic Coast Guard. However, Blanco argues that their rescue boat never left Greek waters, and that the organization had always secured permission from the Coast Guard before setting out:
“The night of our arrest, our boat was out being fixed, so we did not have our own boat. We received a call from another NGO, Team Humanity. They had a boat but they did not have rescue authorization. The firefighters are very recognized as a rescue team, so we went with them in their boat. We did not find anyone, and we always stayed in Greek territorial waters, not crossing outside Greek waters. However on our return, the Greek Coast Guard stopped us. […] They told us that we were arrested, and that their reason for detaining us was that we intended to facilitate the illegal entry of people who did not have the right to enter.”
Blanco and his colleagues were released two days later on 5,000 euro bail bonds, while Team Humanity volunteer Salam Aldeen was held on a 10,000 euro bail without the option to leave Greece.
Since his release, Blanco returned to his family and work in Seville, Spain while awaiting his trial. He continues to coordinate PROEM-AID’s rescue work in the Mediterranean (which has so far served an estimated 50,000 people) and to facilitate swimming lessons for refugee children to help them overcome their fear and trauma associated with the sea.
While Blanco and his colleagues were acquitted in Monday’s trial, they are persistent in their efforts to ensure that humanitarian aid is not treated as a crime. Theirs is not the only case of volunteers facing legal charges for helping asylum seekers. The week before Blanco and his colleagues’ arrest, seven other volunteers on Lesvos were arrested and accused of stealing discarded life vests from a municipal dump (they were released after explaining their intention to use the vests to create makeshift beds for migrants). In 2017, three British and French volunteers were arrested for distributing food to asylum seekers in Italy, a Danish woman was fined for driving a Syrian family between two towns in Denmark, and French police in Calais have banned all food and water distribution to migrants.
After their arrest, PROEM-AID started a petition to stop “criminalizing humanity” across Europe. The team of firefighters presented this petition, which has so far garnered over 167,000 signatures, to an international meeting in Brussels in March. In Blanco’s words:
“We must remember that in the very beginning, the fastest response was from the NGOs and the men and women who voluntarily went to help. […] We have seen a situation of extreme urgency. There were so many people, men women and children, every single day. We could not have remained indifferent in this humanitarian crisis.”
As the volunteers awaited trial, they received strong support at home in Spain. In February, the Seville Provincial Council issued a unanimous statement of support for the firefighters, declaring their “full and absolute conviction in the innocence of the three indicted, [… and] our strongest support and solidarity.” In March, the Parliament of Andalucía also passed a unanimous institutional declaration of support. Last week, the firefighters were awarded the Counsel of Mallorca’s Jaume II prize for their unwavering strength, and the President of the Regional Government of Andalucía reiterated her solidarity with the firefighters before the trial.
In his first public statement since his acquittal, Manuel Blanco celebrated the far-reaching implications of this court’s decision, saying:
“This decision has many more applications in addition to our liberty. It declares that saving lives is not a crime.”
He then drew attention back to the cause he has focused on for over two years and the reason for his activism:
“We want to take advantage of the fact that the cameras are pointing us to say that the same thing is still happening in the Mediterranean; lives are still being lost.”