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Syrian hero detained in Greece

Growing ‘state clampdown on civil society’

Greek police have detained Sarah Mardini, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, who saved 18 refugees from drowning in 2015. The Greek authorities accuse her and two other charity workers, Nassos Karakitsos and Seán Binde of ‘people smuggling, espionage and membership of a criminal organisation’.


Sarah was arrested at the airport on her way back to Germany from a volunteering stint in Greece. Her lawyer reported she was in a “state of disbelief” after being sentenced on charges of smuggling and spying. Under Greek law she can now be held in custody pending trial for up to 18 months.

Police and legal authorities in Greece have called the arrest of the three humanitarian workers, ‘an operation to dismantle a criminal network’ which involves 30 members of an NGO working on the island of Lesbos; where tens of thousands of refugees remain stranded.

Initially arrested on 21 August, Mardini, Karakitsos and Binde were accused of,

“belonging to a criminal organisation, money laundering, espionage, forgery and breaches of immigration laws.”

Sarah’s lawyer, Harris Petsalnikos, said,

“For me, this is clearly a case of criminalising help given to refugees”

Mr Petsalnikos said that Ms Mardini has denied the charges and had been volunteering on the Greek island of Lesbos for the NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI).


In 2015 Sarah and her sister Yusra, an Olympic swimmer, left their home in Damascus, Syria on a boat with 20 other Syrians destined for Turkey. The boat – a small dinghy – was carrying three times more people than it was intended to hold and as it approached Greece, started to sink. Sarah and Yusra, knowing that they are both strong swimmers, got into the sea and started dragging the dinghy for over 3 hours until it reached the island of Lesbos, saving the lives of all those aboard.

Sarah is now a resident of Germany where she and her sister Yusra, live with their parents. Their story is going to be told in a film that is being written by screenwriter Jack Thorne and is to be directed by Stephen Daldry, director of Billy Elliot.


The other two humanitarian workers arrested shortly after Sarah are “Nassos” Athanasios Karakitsos and Seán Binder. Nassos is ERCI’s field director and a military veteran who was shortlisted for the International Maritime Rescue Foundation (H.E.R.O) awards for his heroism; he assisted over 600 boat rescues, saving over 40,000 refugees. Seán is a graduate of the London School of Economics who volunteered with ERCI as career development experience. He grew up in Ireland, moving there at the age of 5 with his family from Germany.

Refugees on Lesbos

The Greek island of Lesbos has been on the watchlist of humanitarian NGOs and workers for some time. Lesbos is one of five islands on which refugees coming from Turkey must apply for asylum on. As a form of designated processing centre for boat arrivals, the island’s facilities have struggled to keep up with demand and a number of refugees end up stranded there.

There are currently more than 10,000 refugees on the island as well as a substantial 114 NGOs and 7,356 volunteers. After visiting a camp on Lesbos in 2017 and seeing such appalling conditions, Pope Francis likened it to a concentration camp. Lesbos has the highest concentration of migrants in Greece and some of the worst conditions. In the refugee camp, Moria, over 8,300 people – 3 times the intended capacity of the camp – live in very poor conditions.

The unpreparedness of the Greek authorities was the catalyst for the influx of NGOs on the island. The Mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, says that he feels some NGOs may have exploited the situation as the state is now better equipped to deal with the refugees on the island.

Police in Lesbos expanded on the Mayor’s views stating that there is a ‘murky side to the story, one of people trafficking and young volunteers being duped into participating in a criminal network unwittingly.’

International reaction

The arrests of the three humanitarian workers seems to echo a growing trend that demonstrates the clampdown on solidarity networks worldwide. The Guardian concluded, ‘From Russia to Spain, European human rights workers have been targeted in what campaigners call an increasingly sinister attempt to silence civil society in the name of security.’

Jonathan Cooper, an international human rights lawyer in London, said “There is the concern that this is another example of civil society being closed down by the State.”

“What we are really seeing is Greek authorities using Sarah to send a very worrying message that if you volunteer for refugee work you do so at your peril.”

The message that the Greek authorities are sending is one that does not seem compatible in a Europe that strives to protect human rights and individual and collective civil liberties. It is an essential right that must be upheld; those doing humanitarian work should feel no threat in doing so, either from state security laws or other non-state threats such as violence.


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