It’s a rare moment that the cities of New York, Cork, Brussels and Athens are linked by the same thread. But in the second week of January, journalists and activists were gathering around a previously unknown case about to take place on the island of Lesbos in Greece.
The admirable young man Seán Binder, whose name has become well-known from Tralee to Thessaloniki, was going on trial in Greece for his role in search and rescue missions dating back to 2017. The charges against him were spurious and almost incredible in their vagueness. But it was linked to something bigger going on in the halls of power in Brussels.
I had been in contact with Seán’s campaign for the best part of two years as they were keen to show that this was not just a local Greek issue. The criminalisation of refugees and humanitarian workers across Europe’s borders was an EU problem.
The wake of Putin’s horrendous war on the Ukrainian people has brought a number of reflections on Europe’s asylum and migration policy as well as on Ireland’s response; Communities big and small in Ireland have clearly been willing to open their doors to people fleeing from the war. Lest we open the door to the politics of us-versus-them and xenophobia however, it is clear that we need a coordinated response including housing, education and healthcare. We have also learned that there is still a strong will amongst European countries to act on humanitarian crises in a humane and caring way.
The people of Lesbos in Greece have been living through one refugee crisis to the next, for over two hundred years. Ethnic Greeks fled the Ottoman Empire through its ports, while Muslims took refuge there, going in the other direction. Democrats have taken shelter on Lesbos from Greek coups and dictatorships throughout the 20th century. Jews fled the fascist occupation during the Second World War. And more recently, the people of that small island have seen hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, even Congo pass through their island looking for a better future in Europe.
In the middle of that recent mass movement of people was Seán Binder, who more often than not, in his own words, offered just a blanket and a smile to people who had just made it through unimaginable trauma on the crossing from Turkey to Greece in flimsy dinghies.
Seán had invited me to attend the trial, to ensure that the failings of the trial and the legislation surrounding it could also reach the centre of EU asylum and migration policymaking in Brussels. Together with about two dozen other defendants and a strong team of campaigners, activists, family and friends, the 27-year-old who was raised between Castlegregory, Tralee and Cork City had an incredible network of support around him. From Ireland, messages came streaming, in support.
On the other side of the bench in the packed courtroom, it was clear the prosecution was well aware of the holes in their case: Seán and his colleagues had not been afforded the right to translated documents. The indictments didn’t even say who was accused of accusing what crimes and where. The case was bound to fail. And it did, thankfully.
A week later, we brought the case to the attention of Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson on the floor of the European Parliament. Reform of EU migration and asylum is expected to be kickstarted again this year. To avoid another trial like that faced by Seán Binder, we need to ensure that policy works for refugees, humanitarians and our communities at home.