Voices: Their inspiring story became a Netflix film – now one of them is on trial

Voices: Their inspiring story became a Netflix film – now one of them is on trial

When Sarah Mardini and her sister Yusra, fleeing Syria, swam a sinking rubber dinghy to shore and saved the lives of their fellow passengers in the same sea where Sarah would later be arrested, the story captivated international media and politicians alike – and inspired the Netflix film The Swimmers.

Now, however, Sarah and a colleague, Sean Binder, are on trial in Greece on charges of smuggling, espionage and leading a criminal organisation – all for working on a search and rescue boat that saved migrants from drowning.

Human Rights Watch and UN human rights experts have decried the allegations, with Amnesty describing the trial as “farcical”. Farcical is exactly the word for it – not only due to the baseless nature of the allegations, but also as a reflection of how simultaneously poisonous and illogical the conversation on migration has become.

Instead of discussing the legality of Greece’s migration policy – which includes unlawfully detaining humanitarians, forcing migrants to undress in the middle of the night as they attempt to cross the border, and engaging in collective expulsion in flagrant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights – the focus is trained on Sarah and Sean, who find themselves in a Kafkaesque trial that exhorts the law to strip human rights, not protect them.

Sarah’s experiences in particular indicate how far the Overton window has shifted. Now, alongside her co-defendants, she could face up to 20 years in prison.

This is the logical conclusion of scaremongering rhetoric that labels migrants intrinsically “illegal”. But the term “illegal immigrant” is not borne out by any reading of international law. “Crimmigration” – whereby the punitive principles of criminal law are applied to immigration law – is not legally sound. It’s a political stunt that hides behind legalese to appeal to the general public’s fear. The reality is that those standing trial are not the ones who have a tenuous relationship with the law – that’s the people who display criminal apathy towards international law and play God with migrants’ lives.

Certain groups within the migrants’ rights sphere have argued that campaigning against the criminalisation of solidarity, as seen in cases such as Sarah and Sean’s, diverts attention away from the criminalisation of migration. They have a point: the number of humanitarians who are criminalised pales in comparison with the number of migrants – 63 per cent of those in Greek prisons are non-Greek nationals. And unlike humanitarians, who are often acquitted on a tide of international scrutiny, migrants are very rarely afforded such privilege.

But these are interdependent phenomena. If migrants are seen as criminals, then helping them stands to be criminalised too. In any case, without humanitarians patrolling choppy waters, there’s no search and rescue – and no oversight, giving authorities carte blanche to act with impunity. When authorities bar journalists and humanitarians from borders, as they did between Poland and Belarus, they’re paving the way for atrocity; I’ve heard first-hand from migrants crossing the Poland-Belarus border their horror as they saw the authorities digging shallow graves. Media silence always precedes repression. How can we resist when we don’t even know about the human rights violations we’re challenging?

Regardless of what happens in court, the Greek government already has blood on its hands. Holding Sarah and Sean in pre-trial detention for 100 days, only to make them wait four years for a trial, sends a clear message to humanitarians: stay away, or else. Though some humanitarians have refused to leave, others can’t justify the risk of staying, as they fail to obtain insurance, struggle to fundraise, or risk their organisations’ permits. Much of the sea between Greece and Turkey now remains unpatrolled.

It’s hard for me to overstate just how needless this all is. There’s no legal basis to this wave of criminalisation. We know that stopping search and rescue doesn’t disincentivise migrants from crossing, and in any case, as an ageing society with chronic labour shortages, we are – and always have been – dependent on migration.

The only silver lining is that there’s no real reason why we can’t totally overhaul our migration policy when there’s no benefit to it. If the purpose of this migration policy is to create a dead cat distracting us from the chaos at home, then we need to stand up and declare as loudly as possible that there is no public mandate for criminalising humanitarians or migrants – or indeed, anyone. Criminalising human-rights defenders is already illegal – we need to make clear that it’s unpopular, too.

We didn’t stop this faux-legal rhetoric on “illegal immigration” before it gained wings to the extent that scores of migrants have been imprisoned across Europe. It’s frustrating that it took the trial of Western humanitarians, and not migrants, to get here – so let this be a lesson for us.

If Sarah and Sean are indicted, this legalese fiction of “illegal immigration” risks becoming a legal reality. This is a trial that will define Europe – Sarah and Sean are fighting for their rights, but also for ours. As Sean memorably puts it, if he can “be arrested for checking a pulse before a passport”, then so could we.