A direct attack on asylum: The unpredecented criminalization of a father
“This is the first case of criminalizing a family member for the risk he has to put his children in, in order to come here and apply for asylum. If [asylum seekers] know that if you get into a boat with your family, you will be criminally charged because you put them in danger, then we create more obstacles for people to arrive here.” – Dimitris Choulis, lawyer of N. & Hasan
The morning after the shipwreck, despite being devastated over the death of his only child and his own near drowning, 25-year-old N. was arrested. He was put in pre-trial detention and charged with “endangering the life of his child” – because he had exposed his child to a danger that resulted in death by crossing the sea. For this, he faces up to ten years imprisonment.
This is the first time in Greece and Europe that an asylum seeker is being charged for the death of their child while fleeing and marks yet another escalation of criminalization. The accusations are not only cruel and cynical, given that there are no safe routes, but constitute a de facto criminalisation of flight. Within the context of EU’s escalating closure of borders, those who want to reach Europe must inevitably risk their lives and those of their families on increasingly life-threatening journeys. They have no other choice. The decision to criminalize N. therefore sets a dangerous precedent.
“In other cases of shipwrecks that have happened since 2015, including those resulting in deaths, we never witnessed criminal charges being pressed on asylum seekers during their entrance in the country. (…) We have witnessed such charges pressed for the same reasons at refugee camps in the country before, but never before in an entry point. So this clearly signifies a shift of approach.” – Vassilis Kerasiotis, lawyer and director of HIAS Greece
“It is outrageous that a grieving father is being punished for seeking safety for him and his child. Criminalising people who are seeking safety and protection shows the failure of the European Union to find a solution to unsafe migration routes that forced thousands to risk their lives to seek protection.” – Josie Naughton, Choose Love
Fighting migration: The systematic criminalization of boat driving
“In Greece, when we have the systematic push-back policy, we put one more obstacle: Even if you arrive, we will criminalize you.” Dimitris Choulis, lawyer of Hasan & N.
The case of Hasan is not an isolated case but paradigmatic for the systematic criminalization of “boat driving” at EU’s external boders under the pretext of “combating smuggling”. As documented by several human rights groups, the filing of such charges is systematically used across several coast states in the EU.
People are arrested because they held the tiller to steer the boat, because they communicated with the coast guard, held the compass or simply because they speak English. Often, arrests happen arbitrary. Trials that follow flout basic legal standards and the punishments are severe (in Greece, “aiding irregular entry” is punished more severly then murder). Arrested immediately upon arrival, most of them are locked away unnoticed and unheard of and with no access to support from outside.
The focus of public attention and outcry is often the criminalization of European activists and civil sea rescuers such as Carola Rackete. While they receive a lot of attention and support when they become the target of criminalization, the everyday practice of incarcerating non-Europeans facing the very same accusations goes almost unnoticed. However, they constitute the majority of those imprisoned on grounds of “aiding irregular entry”.
Italy has arrested thousands of people in connection with driving migrant boats across the Mediterranean Sea over the past decade. In Greece, people imprisoned on the grounds of “aiding irregular entry” constituted the second largest group of prisoners in 2019. There, the average trial lasts around 30 minutes, leading to an average sentence of 44 years.
- Read more here on the systematic criminalization of boat driving in Greece: “Incarcerating the Marginalized – The Fight Against Alleged Smugglers on the Greek Hotspot Islands“
- Read more here on the systematic criminalization of boat driving in Italy: “From Sea to Prison – The Criminalization of Boat Drivers in Italy“
Both the criminalisation of the father as well as the systematic criminalization of those driving boats are perfidiously done under the guise of protecting the very same people they aim to deter.
The EU and the UN have consistently claimed that arresting boat drivers is a way of cracking down on “ruthless smuggling networks” in order to prevent deaths at sea. Needless to say, preventing deaths at sea has long ceased to be the goal of European policy, if it ever was at all. The EU has stopped rescuing people from distress at sea, has punished others for doing so and has caused distress cases itself. There are many ways to prevent deaths at sea than holding allegedly responsible persons accountable as scapegoats after tragedies have occurred. The fact that even refugees are systematically arrested and locked up for years shows all too clearly what is actually being fought: not the dying at sea, not the violence against or exploitation of people on the move, but their arrival.
Like this, people doing it for profit, fishermen, sea rescuers and refugees alike become the target of Europe’s fight against migration and resulting criminalization policies.