ATHENS – Accused of pushing back migrants and refugees at sea and on land, Greece is now taking them to court and jailing them, including one given a 142-year sentence although he rescued 33 others on board a foundering smuggling boat.
Hanad Abdi Mohammad took the wheel of the craft off the Aegean island of Lesbos in December, 2020, the most favored destination for those who went to Turkey fleeing war and economic hardships in their homelands, using it as a jumping off point.
More than a million have come from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa and other countries and regions since 2015, the tides slowing after an essentially-suspended deal the next year between Turkey and the European Union, which closed its borders to them.
That dumped the problem largely on Greece in the midst of what became a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis, doubling down the dilemma successive governments faced in dealing with trouble on two fronts.
Mohammad, 28, from Somalia, is in a prison on the Greek island of Chios after receiving the more than life sentence for human smuggling, a common occurrence with no reports others who've done it have faced such a severe punishment.
“I still have nightmares about that night,” he told The New York Times through his lawyer, from his prison, describing the fateful crossing from Turkey, in which two passengers died. But he said he had no regrets. “If I hadn’t done it, we’d all be dead.”
Ironically, Greek fishermen who've done the same to help refugees and migrants who otherwise would have drowned were lauded and even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize but the New Democracy government is gettingtough
A copy of the ruling from the Lesbos criminal court, dated May 13 and seen by the paper, revealed the length of the sentence for smuggling undocumented migrants into Greece. But it added that he would serve a total of 20 years, the maximum allowed under Greece’s criminal code.
He is one of several asylum seekers in recent months to have received long prison terms for trafficking or facilitating illegal entry despite arguing that they were just seeking safety, according to human rights groups which said they've found dozens of cases.
While it's just come to attention, the report said Greece has been prosecuting people for human smuggling, including the migrants and refugees themselves, since the crisis began.
According to legal experts and rights groups, the practice of putting migrants on trial for smuggling began around the time of the migration crisis of 2015-2016, when more than 1 million refugees streamed through Greece, overwhelming its resources. The practice has intensified as Greece hardened its migration policy in recent years and the European Union doubled down on deterrence, they say.
Greek officials defended the tough policy.
“Greece will continue to guard its land and sea borders, which are also Europe’s borders, as its duty, respectful of international and European law,” Migration Minister, Notis Mitarachis told the paper.
Mohammad is in the same prison with two Afghan men, aged 24 and 26, both of whom received 50-year sentences for facilitating illegal entry into Greece on sea voyages last fall, Lorraine Leete of the Legal Centre Lesvos, which represented them, told the paper. One had traveled with his pregnant wife and child.
And a 28-year-old Syrian man is in prison in Athens after receiving a 52-year term in April after crossing from Turkey with his wife and three children, according to his lawyers, Vicky Angelidou and Vassilis Psomos, who wouldn't name them, citing privacy grounds.
But the attorneys said their clients weren't piloting the boats that Turkey has let leave its shores without sanctions from the EU despite that being a violation of the swap deal.
Mohammad’s sentence was heavier because two women drowned in that crossing. But eight migrants on the boat said that the Turkish smuggler transporting them abandoned the vessel and he tried to save it it after a Turkish Coast Guard vessel forced it into Greek waters, according to his lawyers.
“The criminalization of migrants as a means of deterrence has been a strategy for a long time,” François Crépeau, an expert on international law and a former top United Nations official on the rights of migrants told the paper.
“The latest step is what we’ve seen in Greece recently, which is obscene numbers of years in prison for people who are basically trying to save their lives and protect their families,” he told the paper.
Smugglers have been increasingly limiting the time they spend on boats, abandoning migrants when they approach Greek waters, or training them to take the wheel, said Mohammad's lawyer, Dimitris Choulis and Alexandros Georgoulis.
“Outrageous and far-fetched prison sentences are a method of intimidation,” said Ioannis Ioannidis, chairman of the Hellenic League for Human Rights and a former government official, likening it to the illegal practice of pushing migrants back out to sea. “They’re saying ‘You will face thousands of difficulties and risks to get here and if you do get here your life will be hell,’” he added.