On the eve of November 7th, 2020, a six-year-old Afghan refugee slipped from his father’s grasp into the cold Aegean Sea. Their boat had struck rocks, but it was not until the following morning that the child’s lifeless body was pulled from the water. On its own, this is not a news story―it is the norm. Yet what is novel about this story is the Greek response; for the first time in EU history, a member state has sought to prosecute a migrant for endangering their child’s life at sea. The pair was attempting to travel from Turkey to Samos, a Greek island, after their asylum claims were twice rejected and deportation loomed.
Speaking to the Associated Press in February 2021, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi downplayed the significance of these charges, claiming, “this particular incident does not signal a hardening of Greece’s position.” Dimitris Choulis, the father’s lawyer, disagreed. Choulis labeled the prosecution as “unprecedented” and “a direct attack on the right to apply for asylum.” Pointing to the 6-hour delay between notifying the coastguard of their distress and their eventual arrival, he added that “they do not search and rescue like they used to … when they finally found them, instead of trying to help them they decided to press charges.”
The 25-year-old father, who preferred to remain anonymous when speaking to the Associated Press in February 2021, lamented the cruelty of the prosecution. “I did not come here for fun. I came this way for the future of my son.” He is suing the Greek coastguard who he claims passed his sinking boat multiple times, with no attempt to help.
Putting the delayed response to one side, this grim prosecution of a grieving refugee father should not be permitted. This sets a dangerous precedent for the future of migration regulation, indicating further securitization of an already brutal migration regime. If this boy’s father should be criminalized, then why not all refugees who risk their families’ lives by fleeing violence? Why not simply imprison any refugee who makes the clearly frivolous decision to spend their life’s savings boarding patchy dinghies in the seas their relatives have drowned in?
Of course, this is already the desired policy. This prosecution just makes it more visible, adding an orange jumpsuit to thousands of already-imprisoned refugees languishing in indefinite detention across the EU. Yet, deterrence measures do not seem to work. Researchers from the University of Sheffield found that in contrast to the logic of the EU migration regime―that cruel and unresponsive policy will deter migrants from attempting to find refuge―the overwhelming determinant of refugee numbers is the severity of worldwide conflicts. The inhumane conditions of refugee camps like Moria are widely publicized; however, refugees keep coming because they have nowhere else to go.
Indeed, it is crucial to realize that this boy died because two Afghan nationals, seeking a better and safer future for themselves, were rejected asylum in Turkey and had no means of safe passage. Criminalizing the father shifts responsibility off of the EU who instead seek to capitalize upon it to send a warning to other refugees.
Since 2015, the EU has given Greece €2.81 billion euros for processing asylum-seekers. Turkey similarly received €6 billion to keep refugees at arm’s reach. Such funds could easily be spent developing an asylum process that is both fair and compassionate. One that encourages clean reception conditions and culturally competent asylum officials. Instead, they are spent on costly and ineffective deterrence measures, such as Greece’s recent deployment of sound cannons at its borders. The future for refugees at EU borderlands remains bleak.