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They Came to Help Migrants. Now, Europe Has Turned on Them.

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They Came to Help Migrants. Now, Europe Has Turned on Them.
02.03.2022 13:28

Listen to This Article

Audio Recording by Audm

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On a cold nightin February 2018, Sara Mardini and Seán Binder sat in a jeep on the rocky headlands of Lesbos, their eyes on the water. As volunteers for Emergency Response Center International, a small humanitarian aid group, Mardini and Binder were looking for signs of incoming migrant boats, so they could alert the Greek coast guard and search-and-rescue groups to dispatch assistance. They made an unlikely pair: Binder is a soft-spoken Irishman, with broad shoulders and a mop of black hair; Mardini, a Syrian refugee with a nose ring and a preference for leather jackets. But they shared an easy camaraderie, bound by their playful energy and a fiercely serious devotion to their work.

Just a few years earlier, Lesbos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey, became the center of the European migrant crisis, serving as the point of landfall for more than 500,000 of the approximately 1 million asylum seekers who reached Europe by sea in 2015. Now, even as the world’s attention had moved on, the crisis on Lesbos remained. Migrants continued to arrive, although in smaller numbers. Most came expecting to pass through, but instead they often found themselves stuck for months or years, a result of closed borders, tightened migration policies and a creaking system for processing asylum claims. An island once known for its unspoiled beaches and local ouzo was now something closer to a holding center.

Around 3 a.m., a police car pulled up next to the jeep. An impromptu visit like this was not unusual. As the overwhelming chaos of the crisis’ early months had settled into a more stable kind of misery, volunteers noticed that the local police had taken the opportunity to reassert their authority, making frequent, unannounced check-ins. Someone had already warned Binder and Mardini that the police were visiting all the organizations on the island that day.

After checking their IDs, Mardini and Binder say, one of the police officers walked around to the back of the E.R.C.I. jeep and told them that the rear license plate was askew. He pulled it off, revealing a military license plate underneath. Mardini and Binder were baffled. The vehicle had been purchased from a used-car dealership — they had no idea where the plates came from. A second car of police and coast guard officers arrived to confer, and the two volunteers were asked to drive back to the port, accompanied by two officers. When they reached the coast guard station, Binder and Mardini were put under arrest. “We thought it was a joke,” Binder said. They didn’t know anything about the plates, nor was it apparent how a hidden plate was supposed to help the jeep pass as a military vehicle — it was painted silver and decorated with huge E.R.C.I. logos.

That morning, Binder and Mardini were fingerprinted and lined up for mug shots. They were made to sign documents in Greek that they didn’t understand and then put in a cell together. A few hours later, Binder led the police to the E.R.C.I. house and warehouse, where officers rifled through boxes, found nothing and returned to the station. Soon after that, the police released them and informed them that they had opened an investigation. A friend sent Binder an article on a conservative Greek website describing in lurid detail a foiled scheme concocted by a German spy — Binder, apparently — and his Syrian accomplice to gather intelligence on the Greek Navy. It all seemed absurd. Binder took a screenshot of the article and sent it to his mother back in Ireland.

For six months, life continued as usual. Then, the morning that Mardini was scheduled to travel to Germany, Binder received a call from a mutual friend who sounded agitated. She explained that Mardini had been taken in again to the police station and that the police wanted to talk to Binder too.

When Binder arrived at the station, he found Mardini in an upstairs room seated across from a police officer typing on a computer. Binder asked what was going on, but the man just grunted. After a few hours of waiting, Binder got up and said he was going to leave. The officer stopped typing and looked up from his computer. “Sit down,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere.”

Around midday, a lawyer arrived to represent the two volunteers. He said that they would be taken to the prosecutor’s office in the local courthouse to answer a few questions. Binder and Mardini were told to put out their arms, and an officer handcuffed them together for the trip to the courthouse. For Binder, his first reaction was not fear or anger but a sense of betrayal and disbelief. “I worked with the people who arrested me,” he said. “I called them in emergencies. They asked us for help. We shared resources with them.” And now he was in their custody.

At the courthouse, Binder and Mardini came to understand the true scope of their situation. The odd incident with the military plate had been transformed into the starting point for far more serious allegations. According to the narrative presented by prosecutors and the police, Binder and Mardini were not humanitarians at all, but members of a sprawling criminal cabal responsible for trafficking droves of migrants into Greece. While more than three dozen volunteers from a number of nongovernmental organizations were implicated, the crux of the investigation focused on Binder, Mardini, two ERCI staff members named Athanasios Karakitsos and Mirella Alexou and ERCI’s founder, Panos Moraitis. The charges included espionage, forgery and the illegal use of radio frequencies; they would grow to include trafficking, fraud, money laundering and being part of a criminal organization. For their work saving lives on the shores of Lesbos, the humanitarians each faced up to a quarter-century in prison.

They Came To Help Migrants. Now, Europe Has Turned On Them.

Abandoned boats on the Greek island of Lesbos that were used by migrants.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

It has been nearly three years since the European Union’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, declared an end to the continent’s migration emergency. “The times of crisis, when hundreds of thousands were coming by sea to Italy and Greece, are behind us,” he said, noting that migration into the E.U. had declined to levels not seen since 2013. But these assurances belied a far messier truth. It would be more accurate to say that Europe’s migration crisis has become permanent — an unending nightmare of squalid camps, squandered hopes and festering animosity. Caught between its self-conception as “an area of freedom, security and justice” and its delicate political reality, the E.U. has landed on a grim stalemate in which frontline states like Greece and Italy are made to bear the burden of a whole continent — and the burden of those seeking to make it their home.

In the early days of the crisis, the grass-roots response was the very image of what many E.U. citizens believed their bloc to be: a place of refuge and compassion, created from the ashes of two world wars to set an example based on morality rather than power. In every major city in Europe, volunteers mobilized to offer food, shelter and other assistance to the new arrivals. But the good will was never unanimous, and it did not take long for the compassion and idealism of the initial response to curdle into anger and resentment. Some people simply never wanted the newcomers at all. Several terrorist attacks and other acts of criminality by asylum seekers soured the mood further, heightening public unease about the challenges of integration. Far-right politicians and media outlets stoked and sharpened the growing anti-immigrant temper, portraying Europe as on the brink of being overrun by foreign hordes.

In Poland, the head of the Law and Justice Party said on the campaign trail in 2015 that immigrants were bringing “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites.” The party scored a decisive victory that year, becoming the first to secure an absolute majority in the country’s Parliament since the fall of communism in 1989. In Austria, the People’s Party won the chancellorship on the back of an explicitly anti-immigrant platform, in a campaign so vitriolic that the United Nations refugee agency noted its concern over the “xenophobic” tenor of the debates. Liberal and centrist parties, fearful of being swept from power, adopted rhetoric and policies once seen only on the far right. By 2021, even Sweden’s Social Democrats, who had once championed some of the E.U.’s most generous asylum policies, were disowning their former positions. “Let’s be very clear about one thing: We’re never going back to 2015,” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told a Swedish daily. “Sweden will not end up there again.”

And yet two years into the pandemic, despite border closures and restrictions on new arrivals, people continue to seek safety and opportunity in Europe. Almost 125,000 migrants and asylum seekers reached Europe via the Mediterranean in 2021. Far from an aberration, the turmoil of 2015 was only an amplification of trends long underway, as conflict, climate change and globalization drive migration from the global south to richer countries. Europe is not immune to internal turmoil, either. The war in Ukraine could send tens of thousands fleeing for safety into the E.U.

The E.U., meanwhile, has quietly adopted a much harsher line on migration and asylum. The bloc has erected new barriers, both physical and legal, to keep out would-be newcomers, including a substantial expansion and empowerment of Frontex, the E.U.’s border-protection agency. Brussels has also made efforts to “externalize” the bloc’s borders through dubious partnerships in states that migrants pass through. Libyan militias, for example, have been funded and trained to act as Europe’s first line of defense. As a result, while overall arrivals remain down from their 2015 peak, the death rate for migrants trying to reach Europe has been steadily increasing since 2019. Today, the Mediterranean is by far the world’s deadliest border.

One of the most striking facets of the E.U.’s shifting attitude toward migration is a decentralized but pronounced reaction against NGOs, which once acted as a buffer to soften the worst excesses of the system. National and local governments have moved beyond restrictions on migrants themselves to take aim at the helpers. “Why target humanitarians?” Jennifer Allsopp, a migration researcher at the University of Birmingham, says. “Because it works. They’ve already done everything possible to criminalize migrants.” The crackdown has been an indisputable success, if not in numbers then in terms of misery inflicted. “The E.U. relies on charities to fill gaps in social services,” Allsopp says. “If you take that away, you make conditions intolerable.”

Greece’s prosecution of Binder, Mardini and the other members of ERCI is only the most dramatic example. Across Europe, NGOs and volunteers have faced suspicion, harassment and prosecution for even simple acts of charity, like distributing food or offering shelter. Once cheered for their work, many are now condemned and vilified — and sometimes, as in the case of Binder, Mardini and others in E.R.C.I., face decades in prison.

The stifling of the NGOs and the loss of public attention have enabled a new level of cruelty against migrants. In February, 12 migrants froze to death near the Greek-Turkish border, reportedly after Greek border guards stripped the migrants of their clothes and shoes and forced them back toward Turkey. (Greece’s migration minister denied the claims.) Thousands of migrants, meanwhile, disappear into a network of secretive detention centers run by the E.U.’s Libyan partners. Those caught inside Libya’s lucrative smuggling trade are often kept in giant warehouses, treated as goods waiting to be moved. Though access by media and human rights organizations is sparse, there have been accounts of torture, rape and murder, as well as evidence, first reported by CNN in 2017, of migrants being sold as slaves at open-air auctions. Doctors Without Borders, the international humanitarian NGO, reported in 2018 that it sent 50 body bags per week to just one camp.

Almost seven years on from the outset of the migrant crisis, these anecdotes have largely lost their power to shock — in part because there is rarely anyone there to see them and little public appetite to hear about them. It is a significant fall from the hope and engagement of 2015, when the wave of volunteers who flocked to Lesbos were celebrated as embodiments of the very best of the E.U. But on Lesbos, as with the entire experience of the migrant crisis, the turn from gratitude to hostility was especially swift and intense.

Mardini and Binder at Mardini’s apartment in Berlin.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

One night in early April 2015, the head of the local coast guard station called Spryos Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, to ask for an emergency meeting. At that point, the island was receiving an average of about 300 new migrants every day, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The growing crisis had quickly become Galinos’s main priority in office. In their late-night meeting, the head of the coast guard unit said that his men were overwhelmed and in desperate need of help. Forced to press on much longer, they would simply break.

Galinos was in his mid-60s, with bushy eyebrows, a prominent widow’s peak and a perpetually amused expression. He had served as a city councilman for almost two decades, and he prized pragmatism above ideology. Until that evening, he had always believed that surely someone — from Athens, Brussels, the U.N., somewhere — would arrive to take control of the situation, which was well beyond the responsibility or capacity of a local government. But on that night in April, the reality of the situation dawned on him. No one else was coming, he thought. Lesbos was on its own.

The summer made for surreal scenes and jarring contradictions. Though the crisis had clearly arrived, it had not yet caught the world’s attention. The island continued to operate as the tranquil Mediterranean getaway it had always been. While British retirees sipped coffee beneath the awnings of portside cafes, hundreds or even thousands of migrants trudged past, seeking food, shelter or the next ferry to the mainland.

By October, several thousand asylum seekers were arriving each day. Though most continued to use the island only as a transit point, enough remained temporarily — willingly or not — that it seemed to Galinos as if there were, at times, more people living on the streets of Mytilene than there were Greek residents of the city. Migrants were camped out in every available space, including the steps of the mayor’s office. Local residents saw their gardens turned into impromptu toilets by migrants with nowhere else to go. “You can only imagine what was happening here,” Galinos told me. “Imagine the sea full of dinghies, full of people, 6,000, 7,000 arriving every day.”

Lesbos had yet to receive any financial support from the E.U. — funds for the crisis response were coming entirely from the municipality’s own budget. The national government in Athens, for its part, faced calls from other E.U. governments to set up refugee camps for roughly 300,000 people or risk having its borders sealed off from the rest of Europe. Lesbos, meanwhile, continued to be overwhelmed. All he could do, Galinos told me, was “scream for help.”

Humanitarians were the first to respond. Global media coverage of the disaster — especially the photo of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body was found on a Turkish beach — brought thousands of volunteers from all over the world. They filled the ranks of dozens of small-scale NGOs, many of which were created specifically to address the crisis on Lesbos. While a few large organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) and the International Rescue Committee took the lead, it was the smaller NGOs that made up the bulk of the humanitarian community. By one count, there were about 120 NGOs on Lesbos at the height of the crisis, taking the lead in everything from search-and-rescue to legal services.

Among them was E.R.C.I., which was founded in late 2015 by Moraitis, a maritime executive. At the time, his wife was pregnant with their first child, and the endless images of drowned migrants turned his stomach. “I just wanted to help,” he said. “I didn’t want to see people drowning in my country’s waters.” From two full-time volunteers, the organization grew to a handful of staff members and several dozen more volunteers, waxing and waning in size as people came and went.

The presence of so many foreigners, however indispensable their work, generated tension on the island. “Using volunteers created this gap, which always happens on the front lines if nationals aren’t involved — this gap of us and you,” Farshad Shamgholi, an aid worker who spent several years on Lesbos, says. The volunteers were often well educated, with a strong sense of themselves as global citizens and a concern for the rights of the dispossessed. These were the traits that drove the volunteers to serve, but they could also cause friction with local residents.

Money became a source of especially fierce contention: who had it, and why. Lesbos, like the rest of Greece, remained mired in the effects of the global financial crisis and resulting austerity measures, and unemployment was high. It was difficult for the citizens of the island, who gave the migrants everything they could spare for years on end, to watch the NGO industry boom. “When the NGOs came, people thought, We’re doing the same thing as them, but they’re getting money for it,” Wassilis Aswestopoulos, a Greek-German photojournalist who has covered migration since 2008, said. Aid workers and volunteers generally brought their standard of living with them to the island, renting cars and enjoying small luxuries that set them apart. “They had everything the Greeks didn’t,” Aswestopoulos said. Rumors swirled about where all the money was coming from and the true motives of the humanitarians. Greek television fanned the flames by publicizing the salaries of aid workers.

A vast majority of the volunteers performed admirably, even if they stayed for just a short while. But on a small island, it took only a handful of exceptions to poison local trust. “It’s like policemen,” Aswestopoulos said. “You can have 100 bad policemen and 100 good ones. No one will remember the good ones.” He said he once heard about a scene at a small market on the island, where a group of young volunteers filled up several carrier bags with items, then took a selfie, posted it to Facebook to ask for donations for refugees and finally left without buying anything or even putting the items back. “This is what you hear in the coffee shops,” Aswestopoulos said.

NGOs were caught in a wrenching dynamic: The more they were needed, the more they were resented; the more they helped, the more they were seen as the problem. Without the NGOs, “we couldn’t manage it,” Ioannis Mouzalas, who served as Greece’s migration minister from 2015 to 2018, said. Yet “they were helpful in a way that usually insulted the country and the people.” In that fissure, opponents of the refugees and the NGOs found ample room for attack.

Souvenir pictures left by aid workers who came to help migrants adorn the wall of a cafe in a small village on Lesbos.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Among those who arrived on Lesbos in 2015 were Sara Mardini and her younger sister, Yusra. They had a comfortable upbringing in the Damascus suburb Daraya, daughters of a physiotherapist mother and a swim-coach father. The civil war came to their door in 2012, when a battle between rebels and government forces left their neighborhood in ruins. The teenage sisters eventually received permission from their parents to flee to Europe with two male relatives. They traveled to Lebanon and then to Turkey, where they paid a smuggler to help them reach Greece. On their first try, the Turkish Coast Guard interrupted their departure. On their second try, in August 2015, the engine stalled and the vessel, an inflatable dinghy crammed with 20 people, began taking on water. Sara and Yusra were both high-level competitive swimmers; they and other passengers jumped into the sea, swimming for most of the three-and-a-half-hour trip to keep the craft afloat as the engine cut in and out.

When they finally came ashore on Lesbos, it was late at night. With their phone dead, all they knew was where they were: a beach with small rocks, flanked on one side by a large cliff. Directly ahead, they saw lights from a restaurant, and the group began walking toward it. When they asked the owner for food, he refused. They offered 50 euros, but he still refused. It was their first memory of Europe.

At sea and on land, the sisters’ chilly reception was one consequence of a turn already underway in E.U. migration policy. In April 2015, the E.U., wary of the rising number of migrant arrivals and the deaths at sea that accompanied them, began a “war on smugglers.” One aspect of the new initiative, Operation Sophia, involved deploying military vessels to capture and destroy the boats used by migrant smugglers. By its stated metric, the policy was a clear success: In just over two years, the operation captured and sank more than 400 boats. Yet the policy had a perverse effect: With their larger, more seaworthy wooden boats being destroyed, human smugglers shifted to using cheaper, more dangerous rubber dinghies. NGOs found themselves caught in the middle, trying to save lives amid an escalating battle between human smugglers and E.U. border control.

The consequences were especially clear in the central Mediterranean, in the waters between Libya and Italy. As the risk of capsizings grew, search-and-rescue NGOs responded by deploying more boats closer to Libyan waters, sometimes at the direction of the Italian coast guard. The NGOs saved lives: When they were out at sea, the migrant mortality rate declined noticeably; when they withdrew, as they did during the winter season, the mortality rate surged. But at the same time, their existence may have helped reinforce the dangerous shifts already underway in the smuggling industry. With rescue vessels moving closer to Libyan waters, smugglers put their human cargo in ever more perilous crafts, on the assumption that help was only a short distance away. By 2017, NGOs were assisting in more than 40 percent of rescues in the Mediterranean, a sharp increase from three years earlier, when NGOs were involved in 1 percent of rescues.

The expanding role of NGOs fed a perception that they were acting as a “pull factor”: that by rescuing migrants at sea, NGOs only encouraged more and riskier journeys, thereby actually increasing deaths. More fringe observers accused NGOs of secretly conspiring with smugglers to bring migrants into Europe. The most extreme version of the “pull factor” narrative found a home and a ready promoter in a constellation of far-right blogs pushing the conspiracy theory that European leaders were undertaking a “great replacement” of the continent’s population. Among the most active and vocal of these outlets was GEFIRA. On Dec. 4, 2016, GEFIRA published an article titled “NGOs Are Smuggling Immigrants Into Europe on an Industrial Scale,” claiming that NGOs were involved in a “big scam and illegal human traffic operation.” The article ricocheted around other right-wing sites, but its arguments had a limited audience.

Eleven days later, the allegations went mainstream, when an article in The Financial Times reported that NGOs were supposedly “colluding” with smugglers. Citing confidential reports from Frontex, the article described the agency’s belief that migrants were being given “clear indications before departure on the precise direction to be followed in order to reach the NGOs’ boats,” including at least one case when “criminal networks were smuggling migrants directly on an NGO vessel.” The Financial Times soon issued a partial retraction, walking back the most incendiary claims and admitting that it had “overstated” the accusations. Still, Frontex’s official report, issued two months later, stated that NGOs were unintentionally helping smugglers and thereby increasing the flow of migrants.

In January 2016, just as the first volunteers from E.R.C.I. arrived on Lesbos, the Greek government announced that all NGOs operating on the island would henceforth be required to register their activities with the authorities, as well as provide the names and photos of every member of their organization. The policy’s aim, according to the government, was the “continuous coordination and control of their actions.” NGOs immediately reported an increase in police checks, verbal harassment and arbitrary searches.

The same month the registry was introduced, the coast guard on Lesbos arrested five search- and-rescue volunteers, including three Spanish firefighters, after the men responded to a distress call from a migrant ship at sea. They were charged with aiding illegal migration and faced up to 10 years in prison. In the months that followed, Lesbos became a laboratory for other restrictive policies, like the automatic detention of unaccompanied male migrants from certain countries.

The tightening atmosphere on Lesbos signaled the escalation of a crackdown that was already well underway across the continent. In Denmark, hundreds of people were fined after they offered rides to migrants walking along roadways. In Italy, volunteers were arrested for violating a ban on distributing food to migrants. In Hungary, new laws made it a crime simply to inform migrants of their right to seek asylum. Even as new arrivals declined significantly from their 2015 peak, restrictions on how, where and whom NGOs could help proliferated.

It was precisely injustices like these that had led Seán Binder to Lesbos in the first place. “There doesn’t need to be a dramatic moment when you realize people drowning in the sea is unfair,” he said. “You don’t need an awakening. It’s just unfair.” He’d spent most of his life as an outsider, the son of a German mother and a Vietnamese refugee father in a rural corner of Ireland. The experience had instilled in him a deep-rooted sense of right and wrong. After college, he completed a graduate degree in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, with a focus on European security and defense policy. As the migrant crisis unfolded, he felt that he had a responsibility to help. He joined E.R.C.I. in October 2017 as a search-and-rescue diver and an aid worker in Kara Tepe, a smaller camp set aside for especially vulnerable groups, like unaccompanied children. He met Mardini, who had settled in Berlin but decided to return to Lesbos as a volunteer with E.R.C.I. “When I’m afraid of something, I go do it,” she said. “That’s how I get over it.” They became fast friends.

Binder and Mardini stayed on as the situation on the island started to deteriorate. The notorious Moria refugee camp, where they volunteered in an E.R.C.I. medical clinic, ballooned to a population of more than 6,000 people, double its capacity. Migrants who expected to reach Lesbos and continue on to other parts of Europe found themselves stuck on the island as the overburdened Greek asylum system struggled to handle the enormous number of applications it received. In 2016, the E.U. cut a deal with Ankara. In exchange for billions in aid and other incentives, Turkey would work to prevent migrants from leaving its shores and also accept the return of migrants who did manage to reach Greece. The agreement succeeded in slowing migration, but it further snarled Greece’s asylum system.

A boy living with his family in the Mavrovouni temporary camp on Lesbos after a fire destroyed the Moria camp in 2020.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

The frustration of the asylum seekers boiled over into protests and riots, both in the camps and in downtown Mytilene. Weary local residents likewise took to the streets, aiming their animus at the NGOs and asylum seekers, but also at the Greek government. The migrants and the camps came to characterize the island, decimating the tourism industry on which the local economy had relied. In November 2017, Galinos himself called for a general strike and a day of protests in hopes of forcing Athens to act.

The central government eventually heeded the call, but it did so with one ear tuned to right-wing media, which saw NGOs as the very source of the crisis. In mid-2019, a new center-right party took power in Greece, with a campaign pledge to restore law and order, especially on migration. While the NGO registry first pioneered on Lesbos had been implemented nationwide in 2018, the new government tightened and updated the requirement to specifically target NGOs working in the areas of asylum, migration and social integration. Three further expansions of the registration law followed over the next 12 months.

The government’s hard-line approach was enabled and exacerbated by the changing makeup of the migrant flow. At the height of the crisis in 2015 and early 2016, the plurality of new arrivals came from Syria. As victims of a brutal civil war, they had a clear case for asylum under international law. Over the next several years, the number of Syrians declined to a tiny fraction of the 2015 peak, while the number of irregular migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa gradually came to predominate. Some sought refugee status, but many others came seeking work and opportunity — aspirations that didn’t fit the criteria for international protection. Perhaps more important, they received nothing like the outpouring of sympathy that had initially greeted Syrian asylum seekers. Individuals fleeing Afghanistan fared little better.

The most concerted anti-migrant push was in Italy, where in June 2018 Matteo Salvini was sworn in as deputy prime minister and minister of the interior. Salvini ran on a promise to halt illegal migration, which he described as an attempt at “replacing the Italian people with other people.” He enthusiastically embraced the idea that NGOs were a “pull factor” attracting migrants to Europe’s shores, and he vowed to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants who had already arrived. “The good times for illegals are over,” he said. “Get ready to pack your bags.”

A few days after taking power, he declared that Italian ports would henceforth be closed to NGO boats carrying migrants rescued at sea. Those that tried to conduct their work nonetheless were impounded and their crews placed under investigation. A few months later, Salvini pushed through a decree that eliminated a provision for two-year residency permits previously offered on “humanitarian protection” grounds, while also cutting integration services. As on Lesbos, the new policies stemmed from legitimate frustrations. Between September 2015 and April 2018, almost 350,000 migrants reached Italy. The emergency relocation plan proposed by the E.U. offered help resettling only 35,000 of them. In reality, between September 2015 and September 2018, other European countries accepted fewer than 13,000 asylum seekers from Italy, just 4 percent of the total.

Yet the crackdown did not solve the problem. Salvini’s policies only drove more migrants underground, into the gray economy and away from government aid and social services. By the time Salvini resigned, in September 2019, Italy had, by one estimate, 650,000 irregular migrants, compared with the 500,000 counted under his predecessor.

The handcuffing of NGOs likewise did little to halt migration. As the controversy over a “pull factor” swelled, Matteo Villa and Eugenio Cusumano, researchers who study migration, set out to measure empirically the relationship between the presence of NGO rescue ships and migrant crossings. Using data from 2014 onward, Villa and Cusumano found no link between the deployment of NGO ships off the Libyan coast and attempted crossings. In fact, on average, more migrants attempted the journey on days when there were no NGO boats in the nearby sea. Findings from the western Mediterranean only drove home the point: Between 2015 and 2016, sea crossings from Morocco to Spain increased by nearly 50 percent, though there were no NGO vessels anywhere in the area.

“No one looks at the data,” Villa said. “We have eight years’ worth of monthly data and daily data for three years, and none of it supports the idea that NGOs increase arrivals.” The most important variables were more quotidian: air temperature, wind and the roughness of the sea. When the water was calmer, more people risked the journey. The only thing that changed when NGOs were absent, they found, was the fatality rate.

As Mardini and Binder sat in their jail cells awaiting trial, the case against ERCI came into clearer view. After “many months of in-depth investigation,” the police said in a statement, they had determined that at least six Greeks and 24 foreigners were involved in “an organized criminal network that systematically facilitated the illegal entry of foreigners” under the guise of humanitarian aid. They released an 86-page report that detailed the allegations and that would form the basis of the prosecution.

The case was built on a series of overlapping charges, each one linking into the next. There was the spectacular charge of espionage. To support this claim, the Lesbos Police said that E.R.C.I. had listened to radio chatter from Frontex and the coast guard, while also concealing their own illicit exchanges of “confidential information” by using “encrypted social networking and communication” tools. E.R.C.I. accepted donations, which added a money-laundering charge; facilitating the illegal entry of foreigners was a violation of the state’s Migration Code; and the E.R.C.I. jeep with the false military plates constituted forgery. Together, these offenses made E.R.C.I. a criminal organization.

Handprints left by migrants at an overcrowded camp on Lesbos. Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

In a November 2018 report, Human Rights Watch rebuffed these claims, noting that the report issued by the Lesbos Police said explicitly that the radio channels were, in fact, open to anyone with a VHF radio, a standard piece of equipment on any ship. These same radio channels, moreover, were used by the coast guard to communicate with E.R.C.I. and other nonprofit rescue groups. The close partnership between E.R.C.I. and the coast guard was not in dispute: Soon after Binder and Mardini were arrested, the deputy head of the coast guard in Mytilene confirmed under oath that E.R.C.I. members regularly alerted him to incoming boats. The encrypted messaging service that E.R.C.I. volunteers had supposedly used to mask their correspondence was simply a WhatsApp thread shared by a number of humanitarian actors on the island.

There were even more basic problems with the evidence, the Human Rights Watch report said. Of the 11 instances when Binder and Mardini supposedly engaged in human smuggling — occasions when E.R.C.I. helped rescue migrants in distress at sea — Binder was in Britain on at least six of those occasions; five occurred before he even joined E.R.C.I. Mardini, too, was out of the country on six of the stated dates. The money-laundering charge leveled against Mardini was pinned to a single piece of evidence: Facebook messages in which Mardini wrote, of her work with E.R.C.I., “I am a longtime volunteer and I help with fund-raising.”

Beyond the shortcomings of the evidence, the case seemed to contradict clear provisions of Greek law. The felony accusations claimed that E.R.C.I.’s work constituted human trafficking. Yet the law that Binder and Mardini were accused of violating expressly excludes helping asylum seekers. The Human Rights Watch report noted that the police paradoxically referred to the people E.R.C.I. rescued as “refugees,” while at the same time describing efforts to help them as “trafficking,” a crime that involves force, fraud or coercion. And despite the sensational claim of espionage, there was no assertion of whom Binder and Mardini were supposedly spying for.

Bill Van Esveld, an associate director in the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report, told me that he was appalled by what he found when he combed through the evidence and allegations. “You don’t have to dig very far before it starts to look really, really abusive,” he said. “The sloppiness of the evidence against them — that indicates that an effort to ascertain the facts was second to something else.” He suspected that the indictment was meant as a warning to anyone who might help migrants, refugees and asylum seekers on Lesbos or elsewhere in Greece. “This is about a bigger objective,” Van Esveld said. “Absolutely destroy the NGOs and sow the ground with salt.”

While lawyers combed through the documents, Binder and Mardini remained in pretrial detention, in Binder’s case alongside murder suspects and arms traffickers. Greek law allows up to 18 months of pretrial detention, and Binder tried to brace himself for the possibility that they would serve the entire term. In early December, the court granted their petition for pretrial release. Altogether, they had been held for 106 days.

A few months after their release, Binder and Mardini met in Berlin. A local human rights organization called Borderline-Europe was organizing a panel event on the growing crackdown, and Binder and Mardini were invited to speak. Alongside the panel, Borderline-Europe had scheduled an informal meeting, part coordination event, part group-therapy session, where embattled humanitarians from across Europe could meet to discuss their situations and plan strategy — a human testament to the fact that what began on Lesbos had metastasized across the continent.

Borderline-Europe took a special interest in these cases. Two of the organization’s founders, Stefan Schmidt and Elias Bierdel, were arrested by Italian authorities in 2004 and charged with immigration crimes after their rescue ship, the Cap Anamur, docked in Sicily with 37 rescued migrants abroad. Though Schmidt and Bierdel were ultimately acquitted, the ordeal dragged on for five years. (All but one of the 37 migrants were eventually deported.)

The meeting was held in a small, sunlit conference room in southern Berlin. In the corner of the room was a blue poster with the words “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” written across a small coffin. Carmine Conte, a soft-spoken Italian migration-policy researcher at the Migration Policy Group, began by presenting a draft report on the extent of the crackdown. By his count, there had been at least 49 cases initiated since 2015, affecting 158 individuals in 11 E.U. member states. Despite the sharp drop in migrant arrivals — down 90 percent by 2018 — the rate of prosecutions continued to increase. “These are just the ones we know about,” Conte said.

A few weeks after the meeting, the website openDemocracy announced that it had identified more than 250 people across 14 countries who have been arrested, charged or investigated for a variety of supposed crimes supporting migrants. At least 100 of these incidents took place in 2018 alone, the website noted, double the total from the previous year. “The full figures are likely much higher,” the group concluded. Lower-level harassment and intimidation against aid workers was so common, meanwhile, that it was nearly impossible to quantify.

After Conte finished giving his report, the room went quiet. “I’m one of these criminals,” Sascha Girke said from near the head of the table, with a sly smile. The rest of the room let out a laugh. Girke was 40, with close-cropped hair, graying stubble and playful eyes. He had been head of mission on the Iuventa, a search-and-rescue ship, when it was seized by Italian authorities in 2017 on charges of aiding illegal migration. He and nine other crew members were investigated. Eventually, four were charged, and they each faced up to 20 years in prison. Their case was well known to everyone in the room.

The Mavrovouni temporary camp.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

The seizure of the Iuventa came soon after the Italian government introduced a “code of conduct” for all NGOs disembarking at the country’s ports. The new rules included a ban on NGOs entering Libyan waters unless human life was clearly in danger, as well as a ban on firing flares. Perhaps most controversial was a provision requiring NGOs to let the Italian police travel onboard with them, ostensibly to help identify and arrest any human traffickers traveling among the rescued migrants. Along with four other organizations, the Iuventa crew refused to sign on. On Aug. 2, 2017, two days after the deadline passed, Italian authorities seized the ship and later accused the crew of colluding with human smugglers on three separate occasions in 2016 and 2017. (The crew denies the charges.) The case was a sensation in the right-wing media, where insinuations about NGO-led smuggling were rampant. In the summer of 2017, right-wing influencers went so far as to charter a ship of their own, with the goal of disrupting NGO rescues and proving that the aid workers were merely criminals operating under the cloak of humanitarianism.

A few seats away from Girke was Anouk Van Gestel, then the editor of the Belgian edition of Marie Claire magazine. In October 2017, the police searched Van Gestel’s apartment and confiscated her electronic devices. Along with hundreds of other Belgian citizens, she had opened her home to migrants and asylum seekers who were sleeping in Maximilian Park in Brussels. When the police conducted their search, she was hosting an unaccompanied Sudanese child. She was subsequently accused of human smuggling, as well as participation in an organized criminal group. Though she and three other Belgian citizens were acquitted, the prosecution quickly filed an appeal. “The trial has already cost one million euros,” she told the group. “Isn’t this a waste of time and money?”

For the accused humanitarians gathered around the table, the costs were already staggering. “The average duration of the cases is two years, but sometimes cases last even four or five years,” Conte told me later by email. Years of investigation, prosecution and the media spotlight exact a financial, emotional and reputational toll. “Some young volunteers are unable to find a job after being criminalized, and they have to sustain heavy financial expenses for their trials,” Conte said. The constant sense of uncertainty and the looming possibility of a prison sentence, in addition to the jail time often served while awaiting release on bail, can also be agonizing. Even if they’re acquitted, their lives have been shattered.

As the meeting wound down, Girke tried to buoy spirits by reminding the others that they were not alone. “We are all partners in crime,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. Go on with the work.” Their role, Girke said, was to prod the conscience of Europe, to make the continent live up to the values of freedom and justice that it espoused. On migration, the gap between ideals and reality seemed particularly vast. They would be the ones standing in the middle. “We will always end up in an antagonistic position with the state because we want to change it,” he said. “We want to change the world.”

More than four years after their initial arrest, Binder, Mardini and their colleagues remain caught in judicial limbo. At first, Binder expected the case to move quickly. The accusations were extraordinary and the evidence threadbare. It was only a matter of time until the charges were dropped, he thought, or he and his fellow volunteers were acquitted. But months came and went, and then years. The Greek police were continuing to investigate and gather evidence, and the prosecutor was evaluating the case — that was all Binder heard.

While Binder waited, he watched from afar as the humanitarian community on Lesbos withered, and the island itself slid toward chaos. The dismantling of E.R.C.I. had changed the mood. Far-right groups seemed empowered: Two weeks after Binder and Mardini were taken into custody, vandals destroyed a monument to drowned migrants that had been built in a small harbor outside Mytilene. Vandals had defaced the monument the previous year, but this time, they demolished it down to its concrete base.

Many of E.R.C.I.’s remaining volunteers departed the island as quickly as they could, sometimes without telling anyone they were leaving. Other NGOs involved in search-and-rescue also shut down their operations. “Everyone freaked out, especially doing search-and-rescue,” Fabiana de Lima Faria, a former E.R.C.I. volunteer who worked on Lesbos for several years, said. “Everyone thought they would be next.” When rescue boats came to port, local residents gathered to harass them. In E.R.C.I.’s old area of operations on the south of the island, there had once been at least four humanitarian organizations with rescue vessels at any given time. Within a few months of the arrests, there were none.

Migrants continued to hazard the journey. In 2019, Lesbos had more new arrivals in a 12-month period than it had in the previous two years combined. The consequences of the NGO withdrawal were clear and immediate. In March 2019, local media reported that the Greek coast guard recovered the body of a girl on a southern beach. The child, who was believed to have drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of the island the previous month, was 9. Her body was found without a head.

As elsewhere in Europe, the proportion of Afghan and African migrants increased, adding fuel to the narrative that Lesbos was now an established route for economic migration into Europe. With borders closed and the asylum-and-resettlement system ground almost entirely to a halt, the camps on the island swelled once again. From approximately 5,000 residents in July 2019, Moria had upward of 20,000 people by the beginning of 2020. The more overcrowded the camps became, the more resistance arose from migrants and local residents alike.

Then, the government in Athens announced that it would begin construction on new facilities for migrants on several of the Aegean Islands, including Lesbos — the least desirable outcome for everyone involved. When the construction equipment for the new facilities arrived in port, local residents formed a blockade to stop it from reaching the building site. The government delayed its plans for Lesbos.

International politics provided the last nudge to push the island over the brink. In February 2020, after four years of cooperation with E.U. authorities, Turkey announced that it would no longer prevent migrants from leaving its territory and heading toward Europe. By one estimate, more than 150,000 people gathered on Turkey’s western coast, aiming to reach the nearby Greek islands. Apparently hoping to stem the flow, the Greek government suspended the filing of all asylum claims for one month, a move with no legal basis. (Athens said it would ask the E.U. for a special dispensation.)

Lesbos descended into something like a war zone, with clashes in the streets between far-right and far-left groups. Journalists and humanitarian volunteers were beaten, their car windows were smashed. Menacing roadblocks sprang up on some of the island’s main roads. Migrants, as always, paid the heaviest price, in the camps and on the shores. When a migrant boat came into port, local residents flocked to the landing, cursing at the passengers to leave. Even more radicalized groups gathered to stalk the island at night, and volunteers evacuated in panic. “It’s victims fighting among each other,” Louis Pillot, a humanitarian aid worker who served on the island, says. “Greek people are victims as much as the asylum seekers. Everyone on the island is.”

When Covid-19 hit, it imposed a strange kind of respite. Sudden lockdowns put a lid on the anti-migrant violence that had threatened to spiral out of control, but the peace was achieved partly by keeping the population of Moria penned inside the camp even after the rest of the island had eased its restrictive measures. In September, the camp burned down, leaving thousands homeless at the start of winter.

The Greek Coast Guard was credibly accused by the U.N.H.C.R. and others of organized pushbacks of migrant boats; at the same time, masked and unidentified Greek officials illegally returned migrants to Turkey, including individuals who were apprehended hundreds of miles inside Greek territory. (The Greek government has stated that the pushbacks are not illegal and has denied returning migrants to Turkey.) “The pushbacks and other things happening today wouldn’t have been possible in 2015, 2016, when there were so many eyes there, big and small, watching,” Shamgholi says. “Now it just happens. You just read it in the news and that’s it.”

The E.U., meanwhile, has seemed to embrace Greece’s tactics. In 2020, the bloc announced 700 million euros in funds for Greece, half of it for immediate use to construct and upgrade border infrastructure. Frontex also deployed an additional force of 100 border guards, supplemented by boats, helicopters and an aircraft, to augment Greek officers. The European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, traveled to the Greek-Turkish border to praise the combined effort. “This border is not only a Greek border, it is also a European border,” she said. “I thank Greece for being our European shield in these times.” Sebastian Kurz, then the Austrian chancellor and head of the right-wing People’s Party, warned E.U. states against taking in migrants gathered on the Greek-Turkish border. “If we do,” he said, “soon it will be hundreds of thousands and later maybe millions.”

The route used by thousands of refugees upon their arrival in Greece crossing from Turkey, near Eftalou beach on Lesbos.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Last August, Binder and Mardini received word that the case against them was moving ahead — or part of it, at least. The years of waiting and delay had finally hit a hard deadline: in the Greek justice system, police have a maximum of five years to conduct investigations into misdemeanor crimes before the prosecution must decide whether to try the case. Among the string of charges facing Binder and Mardini were several misdemeanors, including forgery of a license plate. Because the police dated the beginning of E.R.C.I.’s criminal activity to the fall of 2016, the five-year window was about to shut. (The felony charges, which can be investigated for up to 15 years before a decision is made on prosecution, would have to wait.)

To Binder, the news was not entirely unwelcome. With his life still on hold, he had decided to study law in London, with the aim of becoming a human rights lawyer. But when he completed his studies and applied to an inn of court, a necessary step in order to practice in Britain, he was told it was unlikely he would be accepted because of the outstanding criminal charges against him. Similarly, his British visa application will most likely be held up as long as the case remains active. At least a trial would be a first step in settling the matter, he thought, and proving his innocence.

The trial opened on Nov. 18. Greek authorities refused Mardini’s request to enter the country, so she was unable to attend. In fact, only a handful of the 24 defendants were present. The indictment listed the accused only by number rather than name, making it very likely that many of the accused didn’t know they were on trial. Even those in the room didn’t know which crimes they’d been accused of. The writ of summons received by Binder and Mardini was missing a page.

The proceedings lasted only a few hours. Around 2 p.m., the case was adjourned, with the three-member panel of judges sending it to a superior court. The next hearing is expected to happen later this year. At that point, the trial will most likely be adjourned again for procedural reasons.

A couple months after the hearing, Binder and Mardini’s lawyers learned that the felony prosecution was also moving forward. Later this month, the defendants will be delivered a formal indictment and called to the courthouse in Mytilene to give depositions. Mardini, who remains barred from entering Greece, will have to receive permission to attend her own trial.

When I spoke to Binder recently, it was the first time in our three years of conversations that I heard real strain and despondency in his voice. Back home in Britain, he was trying to find ways to keep up his spirits. Still unable to find work in the field of law, he was thinking of running for student government at his university. A campaign called Free Humanitarians was trying to press the case at the E.U. level and draw attention to similar prosecutions across the continent.

When Binder first arrived on Lesbos, he hadn’t intended to stay more than a few months. He was 24 when he was arrested; today, he’s nearing 30. His lawyers had warned him that the case could take a decade in all to resolve. He was watching his life recede away from him, month by month, year by year, at the mercy of a system that has branded him a criminal for trying to help people whom most others seem content to forget.

It was beginning to hit him that his time on the island would be, one way or another, the defining experience of his life. Despite the toll, he refused to regret the impulse that brought him to Lesbos in the first place — the impulse to help. “To regret it is to accept it,” he says. “I still resist it. This shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

A cemetery in Lesbos for refugees and migrants who died trying to cross from Turkey.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Alex W. Palmer is a writer based in Washington. He last wrote for the magazine about the rise of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats. Mauricio Lima is a photographer interested in the lives of ordinary people affected by armed conflict and political turmoil. In 2016, for an essay on refugees in Europe, he became the first Brazilian to receive the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography.


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