Breda O’Brien: EU must block criminalisation of humanitarianism

Seán Binder faces trial for helping migrants survive dangerous sea crossing to Lesbos

For the moment, concerns about migration to the EU are focused on Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko's cynical and sadistic manipulation of the misery of asylum seekers and economic migrants has led to a dangerous crisis.

The Polish authorities are pushing back, a euphemism for leaving men, women and children stranded in freezing temperatures without shelter. These unfortunate people are pawns in a dictator’s game, but the EU is far from blameless.

The need for a coherent and humane EU-wide migration and refugee policy has been clear since the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015. What did the EU do instead? It bribed Turkey into becoming a holding centre for all those unwanted in Europe. As part of that evasion of responsibility, the EU turned a blind eye to the brutal treatment of migrants in Greece.

He saw people suffering from hypothermia. He saw people go into premature labour.  He saw drowned bodies

And it allowed humanitarian workers to become pawns, too. On November 18th, a young German-Irish man, Seán Binder, will go on trial in Greece on trumped-up charges.


All he can legitimately be accused of is having a good heart and an idealistic desire to help. Binder saw the pictures of Alan Kurdi, the little three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on a beach in 2015. Unlike the rest of us, he decided to do something. He had academic knowledge of migration and asylum-seeker issues from his studies at Trinity College. His upbringing in Castlegregory, Co Kerry, had equipped him with important skills in search and rescue at sea.

At 23, he decided to go to Lesbos in Greece and offer support to migrants attempting to land. He witnessed horrors. He saw a frail boat designed to hold 10 people packed with over 80 people, all without lifejackets and clutching wrapped up plastic bottles as their only buoyancy aid.

He saw people suffering from hypothermia. He saw people go into premature labour from stress. He saw drowned bodies. In an interview with veteran reporter Charlie Bird last May, Binder downplayed his role, stating that his job was mostly mundane, handing out blankets, bottles of water or sometimes just a smile. He described it as the most basic thing anyone could do, to help keep another human being from dying. But it is not basic for most of us and it is certainly not a basic part of EU migration policy.

Binder's father was one of what we used to call the "boat people", a refugee from Vietnam. Maybe that is where he got his desire to help. Maybe it came from his German mother, who as a single mother brought her small child to Ireland so that they could be closer to his grandmother and her grandmother's partner.

Some of the other volunteers he worked with had even more dramatic reasons to empathise with the plight of those desperately trying to enter Europe. Sarah Mardini was herself a Syrian refugee. Back home in Syria, she and her sister Yusra were competitive swimmers.

When her family home was destroyed, and the stadium they trained in was bombed, her mother decided to send her two oldest daughters to Europe. Fifteen minutes after the boat left the shore, the engine cut out.

The over-crowded dinghy was in danger of sinking. A man, a non-swimmer, bravely got into the water to lighten the load. Yusra followed, as did Sarah. For a nightmare 3½ hours, they kept the boat afloat, even cracking jokes to reassure the six year old aboard. Eventually, the currents and wind brought them to the island of Lesbos in Greece, all alive and well.

Yusra went on to be the feelgood story of the 2016 Olympics, swimming as part of the first team composed of refugees. And yes, there is a movie in the works.

Sarah went to college in Germany but began to volunteer for the Greek humanitarian agency, Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI). It was there that her life began to resemble not so much a feelgood movie but some kind of dystopian film.

They spent 106 days in custody, first in a police station and then in primitive conditions in jail

In February 2018, Sarah was on what is called spotting duty with her friend, Séan Binder. They were arrested, their rescue jeep searched and their phones confiscated. This is despite the fact they were just doing what they had done side-by-side with the coast guard for two years.

They were released and re-arrested. This time, they spent 106 days in custody, first in a police station, and then in primitive conditions in jail. A local newspaper wrote a sensational story about how a German spy and his Syrian accomplice were apprehended in a stolen jeep while trying to access military bases. The authorities accused them of money-laundering, people-trafficking and espionage.

These two young people and a colleague from ERCI, Nassos Karakitsos, will go on trial in a few days. They risk long prison sentences if convicted of serious crimes. Human Rights Watch has called it the criminalisation of humanitarianism. We could also call it the inevitable consequences of criminal neglect and cowardice by the EU. A fundamental reorientation of migrant policy is long overdue. Meanwhile, many more children like Alain Kurdi freeze on the Polish borders and drown in the Mediterranean.