The case of the Paros 3: How Greece is criminalising asylum seekers
For Kheiraldin, Abdullah, and Mohamad, risking everything in search of a better life is something they have done many times.
Having fled their hometown of Syria for Turkey during the civil war, all three men have made several attempts at the perilous journey from Turkey into the EU. But this time, when they left Turkish shores, their trip would be life-changing.
On 24 December 2021, the three boarded a boat headed for Italy with 77 other asylum seekers. In a matter of hours, their severely overcrowded and damaged vessel sank off the coast of the Greek island of Paros, and 18 of their fellow passengers drowned.
When they managed to reach the shore, Kheiraldin, Abdullah, and Mohamad, who have collectively come to be known as the #Paros3, were arrested by Greek authorities and charged with smuggling, participating in organised crime, and the death of their fellow passengers. The Paros 3 were sent to a prison on the island of Chios where they have remained since.
"Currently, there are thousands of migrants and asylum seekers behind bars in Greece"
On 5 May, a Greek court sentenced the three men to a total of 439 years in prison for their role in steering the boat. Kheiraldin, who was deemed to be the “captain”, received a sentence of 187 years while his two “assistants”, Abdullah and Mohamad, were sentenced to 126 years each.
“According to the Geneva Conventions, those seeking asylum cannot be criminalised,” Dimitris Choulis, the lawyer representing the Paros 3, told The New Arab. “In order to come, they have to cross borders illegally, and sometimes drive or swim and do whatever they need to do to seek asylum.”
'A war has been waged'
When Choulis, a human rights lawyer, heard about the charges facing Kheiraldin, Abdullah and Mohamad, he was unfortunately not surprised. Choulis has seen hundreds of cases like these in his career, which he has dedicated to representing asylum seekers and migrants.
In recent years, he says, much of his work has focused on defending asylum seekers against criminal charges of smuggling and human trafficking, work that has made him the target of investigations by Greek authorities.
Choulis estimates that there are between 200-300 cases each year of asylum seekers being charged and convicted of smuggling when trying to reach European borders themselves. The sentences are usually severe and can range from 10 years for each passenger to a life sentence if there are fatalities.
Currently, there are thousands of migrants and asylum seekers behind bars in Greece. According to a 2019 report co-authored by several humanitarian organisations, migrants and asylum seekers make up the country's second-largest prison population, with 10,654 imprisoned at the time of the report, second only to drug offences.
“It's a large-scale criminalisation practice being put in place by European border authorities,” said Julia Winkler of borderline-europe, a human rights organisation working to raise awareness and resist European border policies, to The New Arab.
“We’re not just talking about treatment or conditions in camps, it's literally a war being waged against people trying to exercise their freedom of movement in the same way Europeans do,” she added.
In the past few years, a violent pushback policy led by Frontex, the European border agency, in which asylum seekers are forced back and away from European borders, has deterred many from seeking asylum in Greece. A recent investigation revealed that Frontex, together with Greek authorities, has been involved in pushbacks against nearly 1000 asylum seekers.
These illegal measures have forced asylum seekers to make the longer and much riskier journey to Italy. “This case of the Paros 3 is a direct result of the pushback policy of Greece,” Choulis explained.
Despite such draconian laws criminalising those seeking asylum, and an increasingly hostile environment in Europe, many still risk the journey in the hope of better life opportunities. According to Frontex, over 57,000 people have tried to enter Europe “irregularly” this year, a 69% increase compared to this same period in 2021.
While these laws were put in place to target professional smuggling rings and organised crime, Winkler explains that, “The majority of people affected by these criminalisation policies are the people on the move themselves.”
“The Paros 3 case is a really strong example of not only how these laws are completely ridiculous and out of place but also how the people targeted are those that are structurally marginalised with little or no access to support,” she added.
"Upon seeing the vessel's condition, and with no prior experience or knowledge of driving a boat, the three men refused to steer it, but were forced to with threats against themselves and their families"
'They couldn't survive in Turkey'
Kheiraldin, Abdullah, and Mohamad all fled Syria years ago. Despite all three men having lived in Turkey for the better part of a decade, none of them were granted asylum in Turkey, leaving them in a state of economic precarity and with the ever-present threat of being deported back to Syria.
“They lived with this fear over their heads,” Choulis said. “They tried to make a life in Turkey, but it was impossible. They couldn’t survive anymore.”
For Kheiraldin, the situation was more urgent, as his daughter required specialised medical attention that he was hoping she could get in Europe.
Forced to work illegally without official papers, and all struggling financially, the Paros 3 didn't have the money needed to cover the 9,000 Euro (£7,670) fee charged for the trip. In order to get on the boat, they made deals with the smugglers to drive the boat instead of paying the costs.
However, upon seeing the vessel’s condition, and with no prior experience or knowledge of driving a boat, the three men refused to steer it, but were forced to after threats against themselves and their families.
Choulis explains that this is an increasingly common phenomenon in response to harsh penalties imposed by European countries, as smugglers have coerced or even forced asylum seekers at gunpoint to captain the boats themselves.
Fearing for the safety of their families, the three men left their families behind in Turkey, hoping that after seeking asylum they would be able to bring their families to join them through family reunification programmes.
Now in prison in Chios, they have been unable to see their families, most of whom are stuck in Turkey or Syria with no way of coming to Greece.
A broken system
In the case of the Paros 3, the prosecutor made a rare admittance that the law itself was problematic, and the court acknowledged that they are not smugglers and dropped the charges of organised crime and responsibility for the deaths that occurred. Still, the judge said he had no choice but to find them guilty of “facilitating the unauthorised entry of third-country nationals with a risk to human life”.
For Choulis, who will also represent the Paros 3 in the appeal stage, while this may be a small win, the prosecutor’s remarks are a testament to the flaws in the legal system and show that the problem is not an application of the law but the law itself.
“We need to change the legislation so we can have a distinction between actual smugglers and asylum seekers,” he said. “We need penalties that are according to the crime.”
"'By definition, if you want to come to Europe you have to risk your life and the life of your family members because there are no legal or safe routes'"
Winkler agrees: “This trial makes it particularly clear that the problem is not abuse or misinterpretation of the law, but the law itself, and that it was made precisely to criminalise those it claims to protect – people who migrate.”
Just last week on Samos, tens of other asylum seekers faced similar charges. On 16 May, after waiting three years for a trial, another asylum seeker named Aziz was cleared of charges of facilitating unauthorised entry for steering a boat.
The Samos 2
In November of 2020, N. boarded a dinghy from Turkey to Greece with his five-year-old son in hopes of a better life. When the boat capsized, his son drowned, and N. was charged with endangering his son’s life in what is thought to be the first case of an asylum seeker being charged with the death of their own child in Greece.
On 18 May, N. was acquitted of all charges, while Hasan, who was charged with steering the boat, received only a probationary sentence in another victory against the system of criminalisation.
For Winkler, the case of the Samos 2 encapsulates the cruel contradiction at the heart of European border policies, and just how punitive the system can be if left unchecked. “By definition, if you want to come to Europe you have to risk your life and the life of your family members because there are no legal or safe routes,” she said.
“We’re not just advocating against criminalisation, we need to actually create a legal and safe passage,” she added. “Unfortunately, criminalisation is just one aspect of Europe’s harsh deterrents and cruel border crossing policies.”
For now, Winkler says that it is a balance of working tirelessly to fight against individual charges of criminalisation despite knowing that trial wins alone are not enough, and that fundamental change is needed.
Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, human rights, US foreign policy, and media studies. She is also part of The New Arab's editorial team.
Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat