ATHENS – Greek police said three members of a non-governmental organization (NGO) helping refugees and migrants at a detention center on the island of Lesbos were also running a ring to help smuggle them into the country, at a profit.
There are more than 15,000 refugees and immigrants on Aegean islands near Turkey, which allows human traffickers there to operate during a suspended swap deal with the European Union which has seen most seeking asylum in Greece after other European countries closed their borders to them and reneged on promises to help take some over the overload.
There are another more than 49,000 in mainland camps, some waiting two years or more for their asylum applications to be processed as European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, a veteran Greek politician, has not forced other countries to live up to their pledges to help.
The members of Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI) were detained on the island, whose center for migrants and refugees was called the worst in the world after a BBC video tour showed miserable conditions inside.
“The activities of an organized criminal network that systematically facilitated the illegal entry of foreigners were fully exposed,” a police statement said.
Members of the group were in contact with migrants on social media groups and “actively assisted” their illegal entry into Greece from 2015 onwards, according to the statement.
The group also was said to have monitored radio communications between the Greek Coast Guard and the EU border agency Frontex, authorities said, and that the suspects didn’t share information with Greek officials.
Among those arrested was Sara Mardini, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee student and scholarship recipient of Bard College in Berlin.
Police said 30 Greek and foreign nationals, all members of the NGO, are suspected of involvement.
The three people arrested, including a German and a Greek national are accused of belonging to a criminal organization, money laundering, espionage, forgery and breaches of immigration laws.
Police said they allegedly facilitated the illegal entry of migrants to Greece for profit, to raise donations or subsidies for the NGO’s activities, and had advance notification of smuggling boats’ routes and numbers of passengers.
A Greek lawyer representing two of the suspects, Mardini and German national Sean Binder – said his clients were doing volunteer work and denied the charges.
“There is no evidence whatsoever that they have committed even one of the offences they are accused of,” Haris Petsikas told The Associated Press. “On many of the dates when they are supposed to have committed offences they were not even (in Greece).”
Mardini and her sister Ysra — both competitive swimmers — arrived in Greece in 2015, swimming for their lives after jumping off an inflatable boat that began taking on water. Ysra was a member of the refugee team at the Rio Olympics.
Lesbos is a major entry point for migrants and refugees illegally crossing over from nearby Turkey. Since Europe’s migration crisis hit a peak in 2015, it has become a base for many charities helping migrants. More than 10,000 migrants are currently stranded on the island.
Petsikas said there was no proof that ERCI members were in contact with migrant traffickers.
The arrests followed an investigation launched in February, after two members of the NGO were stopped on Lesbos in a jeep with fake Greek military number plates under its own license plates.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)