The Refugee Crisis and Greece Featured in the New York Times

NEW YORK – The case of volunteers Sara Mardini and Seán Binder, who are being prosecuted for smuggling migrants and risking up to 25 years in prison, was featured in the New York Times’ Magazine, criticizing the immigration policy of Greece and Europe as a whole in the March 2 article titled: “They Came to Help Migrants. Now Europe Has Turned on Them.”

“As the legal ordeal of two aid workers shows, anti-migrant attitudes in Greece and across Europe have hardened — to the point that the helpers have become political targets,” the Times reported.

”On a cold night in February 2018, Sara Mardini and Seán Binder sat in a jeep on the rocky headlands of Lesbos, their eyes on the water,” the Times reported, adding that “as volunteers for Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), 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.”

The “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… shared an easy camaraderie, bound by their playful energy and a fiercely serious devotion to their work,” the Times reported, noting that “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,” the Times reported, adding that “migrants continued to arrive, although in smaller numbers” and “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,” the Times reported, noting that “around 3 AM, a police car pulled up next to the jeep” and “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” and “someone had already warned Binder and Mardini that the police were visiting all the organizations on the island that day,” the Times reported, adding that “after checking their IDs, Mardini and Binder say, one of the police officers walked around to the back of the ERCI jeep and told them that the rear license plate was askew.”

Protesters shout slogans during a protest against violence at the Greek-Turkish border, in Athens, on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022.  (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

“He pulled it off, revealing a military license plate underneath,” the Times reported, noting that “Mardini and Binder were baffled” as “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,” the Times reported, adding that “when they reached the coast guard station, Binder and Mardini were put under arrest.”

“We thought it was a joke,” Binder told the Times which noted that “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 ERCI logos.”

“That morning, Binder and Mardini were fingerprinted and lined up for mug shots,” the Times reported, adding that “they were made to sign documents in Greek that they didn’t understand and then put in a cell together” and “a few hours later, Binder led the police to the ERCI 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,” the Times reported, noting that “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.”

For six months, life went on normally. Then, on the morning that Mardini was scheduled to travel to Germany, Binder received a call from a troubled mutual friend. He explained that Mardini had been taken back to the police station and that the police wanted to talk to Binder as well. Eventually, they were both arrested- “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,” the Times reported, pointing out that “for their work saving lives on the shores of Lesbos, the humanitarians each faced up to a quarter-century in prison.”

“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 reported.

“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 EU had declined to levels not seen since 2013,” the Times reported.

“But these assurances belied a far messier truth,” the Times noted, adding that “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 EU 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,” the Times reported, noting that “in the early days of the crisis, the grass-roots response was the very image of what many EU 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,” the Times reported, adding that “some people simply never wanted the newcomers at all” and “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,” the Times reported.

The full New York Times article is available online: https://nyti.ms/3hNfHJl.


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