‘No more bleeding hearts’: Kerry-raised NGO worker among those on trial in Greece

Europe Letter: Search and rescue worker Seán Binder gets caught in geopolitics of migration

24 people, including Kerry-raised Seán Binder, from non-profit migrant rescue group ERCI - who operated on the Greek island of Lesbos from 2016 to 2018 - face up to 25 years in prison when their trial begins on November 18th. Video: Reuters

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Imagine a universe slightly different to our own. The north Atlantic land bridge that in prehistoric times allowed people to cross between Europe and the Americas on foot still connects the continents. 

The northwest Atlantic region is war-torn, a site of geopolitical feuding over the Arctic’s rich resources. A brutal civil war breaks out, sending millions on the move.

Ireland is on the front line as people flee to Europe. A narrow stretch of sea separates the land bridge from Donegal, and desperate people begin making the crossing in flimsy boats.

Tory Island and Árainn Mhór locals rise to the challenge, organising food and clothing for those washed up on their shores. Heart-rending images and repeat tragedies as boats of men, women and children sink in the waves draw in NGOs, who help with rescues and accommodation, with volunteers arriving from Italy and Greece.

Mediterranean countries’ jadedness over migration has become established as the predominant view across national leaderships and in EU institutions

In the worst year, 50,000 people arrive. Tory Island and Achill become home to sprawling makeshift camps where thousands share just a few taps and toilets, waiting to be processed in a backlogged system.

Ireland appeals for European Union help. Most of the people arriving aspire to travel onwards to wealthy Greece and Italy. But those countries are reluctant to take in asylum seekers, and plans for a shared response stall.

As the years drag on, local people on the islands become angry about the camps. Relations are bad between the British and Irish governments, and many suspect the British coast guard of allowing – perhaps even causing – crossings into Ireland.

Suspicion turns to the NGOs, too. Are they really helping to fix the situation or prolonging it? Far-right groups exploit the situation; across society, almost no one is happy with the status quo. A new government comes to power, vowing to reduce the number of people making the crossing and to restore the islands’ peaceful past.

In our world of course, the situation is the reverse. Mediterranean countries are those that geography has determined to be the arrival point for people fleeing Africa and the Middle East.

Over the past two years, their jadedness over migration has become established as the predominant view across national leaderships and in EU institutions.

The act of crossing a border without a visa has not always been considered illegal. But this understanding and terminology has been adopted by the EU’s border agency, Frontex, which has been granted the largest budget of any EU agency to build up a force of 10,000 by 2027.

If such an act is illegal, then those who assist in it commit a crime, according to the logic. This is the background to the criminal prosecution of people involved in the NGO sector, which has happened in multiple countries across the EU since 2016.

You drag search-and-rescue organisations... through the courts, imposing massive costs on individuals. The limbo is very damaging personally, psychologically, professionally

Seán Binder, who grew up in Kerry and volunteered in search and rescue on the island of Lesbos, is among 24 people associated with the non-profit Emergency Response Centre International to go on trial in Greece this week. The charges relate to his monitoring of boat movements in the narrow sea passage from Turkey, by listening to the open maritime emergency radio frequency Channel 16, and communicating such information over WhatsApp.

Binder is scathing about the strength of the Greek authorities’ case, which characterises this activity as espionage. He believes the point of the trial is not to convict him but to dissuade NGOs in a misplaced hope this will reduce crossings.

“You drag search-and-rescue organisations... through the courts, imposing massive costs on individuals. The limbo is very damaging personally, psychologically, professionally,” he told The Irish Times. “This acts as a chill factor.”

Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi, while not commenting on the specific case, told The Irish Times the issue was not with NGOs in general but “the very small number of individuals who have broken the rules”.

“I don’t think Europe should be closed. We should offer support to people in need,” Mitarachi said. “But we should not let the smugglers, who get paid thousands of euro from people suffering, decide who comes to Europe.”

Greece has long accused Turkey of influencing migration flows as a tool to exert political pressure. The use of this tactic by the Belarusian regime on the EU’s eastern border has now made migration as a border security issue a priority for several member states for which it was previously a more remote concern.

A diplomat was recently asked who were the remaining “bleeding hearts” among the EU’s 27 members: those focusing on the need for a humanitarian response to migration.

“There are no more bleeding hearts,” the diplomat replied.

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