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Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI) is Greek nonprofit whose mission is to provide humanitarian aid, especially to refugees making the perilous journey through the Aegean Sea. From the island of Lesbos, the agency conducted search and rescue operations. Since 2015 they claim to have helped over 45,000 refugees reach safety. Despite these achievements, ERCI has been forced to shut down.
Thirty members of the organization now face charges of human trafficking. Greek police claim that the NGO facilitated “the illegal entry of aliens into Greek territory” and supplied “direct assistance to organized illegal immigration networks.”
One of those arrested is 23-year-old Sara Mardini, an active member of ERCI and a swimmer who, with the help of her sister, rescued 18 refugees on a sinking boat in 2015. In 2016 she would swim in the Olympics. This celebrity status has brought an unusual amount of attention to the case, but this crackdown on NGO’s and volunteers trying to help refugees is not a recent phenomena.
Cases associated with the criminalization of humanitarian aid, charities, and actions of solidarity with refugees are prevalent in Europe. Activist helping transport and house refugees have been arrested and taken to courts in several nations including Greece, France, Italy, and Spain. In Hungary a recent bill passed that allows for imprisonment of anyone helping undocumented migrants.
The contention associated with humanitarian aid in Europe is not surprising. The mission of NGOs involved in refugee aid conflict directly with European policy. Said NGO’s function to bring as many asylum seekers as possible to the safety of European shores. But European policy is clearly aiming to reduce the number of migrants reaching their land. The EU’s agreement with Turkey in 2016, and Italy’s agreement with Libya in 2017 have effectively reduced the number of those migrating to Europe. Compared to 2015, refugees to Europe have been reduced by 90%.
This is a pressing issue that must be resolved. The criminalization of humanitarian aid is not a humane solution to the migrant crisis. Attacking those helping refugees, only creates more victims. Resources should be devoted to prosecuting those profiteering off the migrant crisis and exploiting refugees.
Still, members of ERCI have denied all accusations. ERCI founder, Panos Moraitis, claims that they followed every rule and regulation and that they had all the proper licenses. It is unclear what evidence the authorities have to support their conviction. The accused can be held in pre-trial detention for up to 18 months. Life imprisonment is possible if they are convicted.
As for now, the dangerous water of the Aegean Sea is left with only one rescue agency, Refugee Rescue. This organization works closely with Greek authorities, in hopes of maintaining their legitimacy in an increasingly hostile environment towards aid workers.