Sara Mardini, Syrian human rights activist and former competitive swimmer. Credit: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

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Please note that this article contains spoilers for the movie The Swimmers (2022).

Since 2011, the Syrian refugee crisis has become the largest humanitarian issue of our time. A staggering 6.8 million Syrians have been displaced, either internally within the country or to neighbouring countries and abroad, due to the Syrian civil war and the ongoing violence. In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, an unprecedented number of refugees sought refuge in Europe, often traveling by boat from Türkiye to find protection on Greece’s European shores before traveling north through the Balkans to Central and Western Europe. 

The European response to the migrant crisis emphasized the failure of the Global North—which includes the wealthy and powerful areas of North America, Europe and Australia—to coordinate a collective response to support and protect the most vulnerable populations fleeing violence and persecution. While several countries, such as Germany, suspended rigid immigration policies and committed to increasing refugee quotas, anti-migrant and xenophobic sentiments increased across the continent. States re-established border controls, built fences, and restricted many rights of asylum seekers. 

The Swimmers

Inspired by the lives of the Mardini sisters, Sally El Hosain exposes the devastating truths of the journey out of war-torn Syria in her 2022 film, The Swimmers. The film follows the story of Sara Mardini, then 20, and her sister Yusra Mardini, then 17, as they leave their family in Damascus, the capital city of Syria, to seek protection in Germany. From Türkiye, the sisters are smuggled on an overcrowded dinghy to the Greek island of Lesbos. As they make their way across the Aegean Sea, their motor fails, filling the dinghy with water. Faced with the prospect of the entire boat capsizing, Yusra and Sara, who were professionally trained swimmers back in Syria, jump into the water. The sisters then swim for over three hours to Greece, heroically pulling the sinking dinghy and 18 other refugees behind them to safety. 

Once in Germany, Yusra continued her training, going on to participate in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic team. Sara, on the other hand, returned to Lesbos to volunteer with the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), an NGO that conducted emergency search and rescue and provided aid to refugees arriving in Greece. 

Charges Against Refugee Aid Workers

In 2018, Sara Mardini, along with twenty-four migrant aid workers, were arrested in Greece on misdemeanor charges, espionage, and suspicions of human trafficking. Sara was detained for 106 days in the Korydallós prison before being released on bail and banned from the country. On January 13, 2023, a Greek court dropped all charges against migrant aid workers. The official charges included espionage, illegal access to state communications, money laundering and assisting in criminal activity. The aid workers would have faced 25 years in prison for the collective charges had they been found guilty. However, the Greek court dismissed the charges on procedural grounds, noting that the evidence had not been translated properly. 

The United Nations and human rights groups condemned the trial, arguing that criminalizing migrant rescue workers would set a dangerous precedent. Amnesty International condemned Greek authorities for misusing the criminal justice system “to punish and deter the work of human rights defenders.” Unfortunately, the arrest of Sara Mardini and her colleagues was not an isolated incident. Greek authorities have arrested numerous aid workers and activists in an attempt to restrict the activities of humanitarian organizations and prevent migrants from safely reaching their borders.

Critics of immigration argue that aid organizations and search and rescue operations cause a pull factor, which encourages smugglers to facilitate more illicit migration to Europe. This argument often influences public policy yet fails to acknowledge why asylum seekers flee their home countries. Moreover, search and rescue and humanitarian aid organizations exist to provide necessary goods and services when the state has failed to do so. European states have cracked down on search and rescue operations by seizing search and rescue vessels, criminalizing their activities and delegitimizing their work in the media. 

Illegal Pushbacks

Greece has also denied allegations that it has forcibly returned asylum seekers via boats to Turkish waters in what is known as “pushbacks” without considering their immigration circumstances or allowing them to apply for asylum. There have also been allegations that the European Union, Italy, and Malta have pushed back refugees toward Türkiye and Northern Africa. Asylum seekers are shipped back into international waters and often left stranded for days or weeks out in the open sea. Another pushback tactic includes creating waves to make it more physically difficult for the dinghies and boats that refugees are traveling on to cross the Mediterranean. There have also been allegations of abuse by the authorities and the unlawful seizure of asylum seekers’ belongings, ID, and money. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has deemed the practice of pushbacks as “shameful.” Pushbacks violate the principle of non-refoulement: the international law that prohibits states from returning individuals to a place where they would face risks of irreparable harm. Pushbacks are also a violation of the norm against collective expulsion, or the removal of asylum seekers without considering each person’s case, as prohibited by the European Convention on Human Rights. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the freedom of movement is codified as a fundamental human right. Articles 12 and 13 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights further affirm this right. Therefore, countries should not block refugees from seeking asylum in Europe.

Human Rights Watch further reports that there have been incidents of law enforcement collectively expelling individuals from mainland Greece, even though they have the necessary documents proving they have the right to remain in the country. By preemptively deporting asylum seekers, authorities are denying vulnerable people the right to apply for refugee protection. With new restrictions and the suspension of government services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, issues for refugees trying to obtain asylum protections have increased. 

Human rights agencies have advocated for investigations into the systemic violence against refugees and humanitarian aid workers. Pushing refugees back from European borders, restricting search and rescue operations, and criminalizing humanitarian aid workers will not prevent people from taking a dangerous journey to seek asylum. It will only lead to more loss of life as people are left stranded in open waters without assistance or forced back to the violent conditions that caused them to flee from their homes and their countries in the first place. While the charges against Sara Mardini and other ERCI activists have now been dropped, much more work needs to be done to support refugee humanitarian efforts and protect the rights of refugees globally.

Edited by Light Naing

Alex Senchyna

Alex (she/they) recently graduated from Simon Fraser University with a B.A. in International Studies and History and currently works in refugee resettlement. Their interests include human rights law, migration...