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sean binder

'It seems dramatic; most of the time I did f**k all': Kerryman on migrant smuggling trial in Greece

Sean Binder faces trial in Greece this week.

migrants-and-refugees-arrive-on-lesvos-island An inflatable boat with migrants and refugees approaches the island of Lesbos (file photo)

AN IRISH RESCUE volunteer who is facing trial in Greece over charges related to alleged people smuggling has said the idea that he could go to jail for helping migrants in distress is “very frightening”.

Sean Binder, who is originally from Kerry, travelled to the island of Lesbos in late 2017 to volunteer with the Emergency Response Centre, a Greek search-and-rescue NGO.

In 2018, he was charged along with 23 other volunteers for a range of offences including misdemeanour counts of espionage-related offences, illegal access to state communications and assisting criminal activity.

All defendants deny any wrongdoing and maintain that they wanted to help save lives when Lesbos was overwhelmed by refugee and migrant arrivals from nearby Turkey.

Binder is due to stand trial on the Greek island on Tuesday, and could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

Amnesty International has called on the Greek authorities to drop the case, describing the charges as baseless and claiming that the volunteers were simply “helping refugees and migrants at risk of drowning at sea”.

Dozens of MEPs have also signed a letter, drafted by Green Party MEP for Ireland South Grace O’Sullivan, indicating their support for Binder and questioning the basis of the charges against him.

Speaking to The Journal ahead of his trial this week, Binder explains that he travelled to Greece to volunteer because he felt it was his duty as a European citizen.

“This is one of the deadliest crises to befall the continent, and the way Europe responds is by securing our border against people in distress, which is contrary to our laws and, I would argue, our values,” he says.

“What happens at Greece’s borders is happening at our European border, and therefore happens in my name. And I’m not okay with that.

In an ideal world there would be no need for search-and-rescue because people would not be drowning. And twenty-something-year-old volunteers shouldn’t be the way that we respond to people in distress; but that is the reality we live in.

Trained authorities

A trained rescue diver from Castlegregory in Co Kerry, Binder says he  specifically volunteered with the Emergency Response Centre in 2017 because they had a good relationship with the Greek authorities.

He recalls working closely with the police and coast guard when he arrived in Lesbos, and that the NGO trained authorities in how to do CPR and provided supplies to Frontex, the EU’s border management agency.

But he describes the bulk of his work as “not all that special”, saying it mostly involved standing with medical and rescue equipment near the shore between 7am and midnight each day, waiting for the sight or sound of migrants arriving in boats.

When migrants were spotted, the group would call the coast guard and respond using a search-and-rescue vessel if the coast guard couldn’t do so.

“I think we have this idea that search-and-rescue, because of all the social media stuff, that we tend to see it as so dramatic,” Binder says.

“There’s this idea that it’s all super sexy and that we’re always saving people’s lives. But the vast majority the time, I did fuck all.

“Most of the time I sat around holding a bottle of water in one hand and a blanket in the other just waiting. And to be arrested for doing that smallest of good gestures is, I think, the antithesis of what Europe tries to be.”

His first arrest came in February 2018, when he and another co-defendant were brought in by police while they watched for migrants on a night shift.

Binder was subsequently released and continued volunteering, before being arrested again in August 2018. He was then placed in pretrial detention for more than 100 days.

original Sean Binder with Green Party MEP Grace O'Sullivan Twitter / Grace O'Sullivan Twitter / Grace O'Sullivan / Grace O'Sullivan

Binder describes conditions in prison as tough, and says he prepared himself to remain in jail for 18 months – the maximum amount of time a person in his position could be held while awaiting trial. 

“Prison is obviously horrifying. But I think it’s even worse when there’s such a sense of injustice,” Binder says.

“I was doing what I was told we should be doing. I grew up in Ireland, where one of our catchphrases is ‘fáilte’ [welcome] and we have values that direct us to the helping of others.

“And so to end up in prison for doing that was really kind of really difficult to understand. I was put in a cell with someone who’s literally murdered someone.”

Procedural grounds

He was eventually released in late 2018 and has been waiting for the case to go to trial ever since. A previous hearing was due to take place in November 2021, but was postponed on procedural grounds.

Binder says that one of his biggest fears is that the trial may be adjourned for a second time.

However, with his lawyers set to argue on Tuesday that the prosecution has not fixed a number of procedural violations since the previous hearing, he also worries that the trial could go ahead on what he believes to be an unfair basis.

“I’m desperate to get to trial. I know I’ve done nothing wrong, and know that if we get to a fair trial, we will be found not guilty,” he says.

If we were the heinous criminals that the prosecution says we are, and if they have the evidence, then we will be behind bars already.

Binder suggests that regardless of the outcome, the case has been a success for the Greek authorities because, he says, they have achieved a wider goal of creating a “chilling effect” for NGOs, who are no longer engaging in search-and-rescue operations in the area. 

“That is the main point I think. I’m just an individual; if I go to prison, it’s unfortunate for me but who really cares?” he says.

“The reason that we should all here is because it’s not just about me. It’s about the idea that the rule of law exists, that human rights exist.

“I’m not asking the European Union to do something utopian or naive; I’m asking it to apply its own laws.

“We are seeing a backslide on the rule of law, not just in search-and-rescue cases, and not just for migrant-oriented charities or activists; we are seeing it in all kinds of racial spaces, and spaces that fight for equality. And I think it’s very frightening for all of us.”

The trial begins on Lesbos on Tuesday, and is expected to take weeks to conclude.