While I was about to start my second year at university, excited to take courses such as 'history and politics of the Middle East' or 'international relations' and dreaming of my next holiday by the sea, Sara, the same age as me, was crossing the Mediterranean to save her life and that of a group of unknown people who were sharing their deepest fears and hopes.
That summer, it was 2015, hundreds of Syrians were fleeing a country hit by the civil war and the bombing, heading for Europe by any means available. The influx of migrants reached historical numbers: over one million of people applied for asylum to European countries that year, escaping Assad regime and its ally Putin’s bombs on civilians.
That summer young students like me spent hours discussing about geopolitical strategies and EU migration policies while our peers felt those strategies and policies burn on their skin as fugitives. Sara was one of them, listening and dancing to the same music as in our clubs, loving the same drinks and probably coveting the same clothes.
Sara could have been one of my friends, those with whom I was preparing for my September exams, but History, or Power, or Injustice, asked her to take on a responsibility infinitely greater than that of passing an exam session or returning unscathed from a drink night.
And so that summer she found herself being the needle between the life and death of sixteen people who were leaving different African and Middle Eastern countries for multiple reasons, but basically united by the fact that they no longer felt protected in what should have been their home. Together with her younger sister Yusra, a competitive swimmer for the Syrian national team, with whom she had shared years of hard training in the pool, Sara decided to put her skill and familiarity with water to good use, this time facing the open sea and the risk of death. Swimming those kilometers that the dinghy crowded with people would never have managed to cross without breaking up, one stroke after another the Mardini sisters reached the Greek coast, guaranteeing the safety of their fellow travelers. Many months and kilometers later, when her sister Yusra decides to participate in the Olympics wearing the shirt of the refugee team, Sara will find her own personal challenge on the island of Lesvos where she had experienced the most dramatic moments of her journey.
This story came to me thanks to the film that was inspired by it, the Swimmers, and which had the great merit of bringing a story of suffering, injustice and solidarity to a popular screen, which tends to be populated by lighter topics.
And when it reached me, on a bored evening when I too was looking for something lighter, it gave me a sudden jolt. What shook me the most was Sara's choice, so immediately incomprehensible. I was thinking of that very human tendency that we all have when we escape danger or misfortune, that resolution never to put ourselves in a similar situation again because we are sure that we are not allowed to escape certain tragedies more than once.
As if it were our personal miracle, a sort of salvation bonus, not granted to everyone, after which you are sure you can no longer hope for fate or luck. It was precisely that innate and unbreakable faith in the principle "you can't be that lucky twice" that made Sara's gesture crazy and almost ungrateful in my eyes. To be honest, Sara was not going to cross the Mediterranean with only the strength of her arms again. But with her feet firmly on the ground, she had decided to reach out to those who, as she did a few months earlier, arrived exhausted on Greek beaches without receiving any welcome, or who convinced themselves they no longer had the strength for the last meters of sea.
For me, watching the whole thing from a sofa, even the idea of seeing those places again, that suffering, that fear on other people's faces seemed for a moment a very masochistic way of reliving one's trauma, of not wanting to move on. For those people, on the other hand, the luxury of being able to try just once and then give up, should one fail to cross the sea and miraculously come out alive, is not even a possibility. I was thinking about how difficult it is for us, on the lucky side of the Mediterranean, to consciously risk our skins just once; I was trying to double, triple, quintuplicate that feeling of rejection that the survival instinct manifests in the face of danger and I imagined myself having to ignore it as many times, preferring death to a life of persecution. Today I am wondering whether perhaps it was precisely to allow other people to continue that arduous path towards a better life without looking back at the evil suffered, that Sarah decided to interrupt her journey by crystallizing it in its most dramatic moment.
This is the story of how a Syrian refugee became a human rights activist in Europe, providing aid and assistance to those attempting to cross the Mediterranean. It is a story of courage and solidarity, but it is also a story of uninterrupted injustice, who brought that same girl two years later before the authorities on charges of crimes related to aiding and abetting illegal immigration. In 2018 Sarah, together with 23 activists and operators, has been charged of trafficking of human beings, membership of a criminal organization and money laundering, offenses which could carry a penalty of 20 years in prison. She and her friend and colleague Sean Binder, a German guy volunteering as a lifeguard with the Greek NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), spent 106 days in prison awaiting a trial, which was then adjourned for all the 24 members of ERCI, including Mardini and Binder, "due to lack of jurisdiction of the court" and referred to a higher one. What shocked them the most was that who was making allegations against them were exactly those institutions and public authorities cooperating with them for the whole time, those who allowed the humanitarian organization the two young volunteers worked for to legally registered in the Country. All of a sudden, those same authorities were accusing them instead of praising them for doing what the government was supposed to.
In the landscape of humanitarian aid and emergency relief in Europe this is the rule rather than an exception. Only in the last four years there have been more than twenty proceedings against humanitarian organizations rescuing migrants in Italy, one of the states of first reception for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The NGOs and their staff are frequently under investigation for allegedly encouraging illegal immigration plus the whole package of accusations which seems to be shared among all the European governments. So far, none of them was found guilty. But it is well known that newspapers are a far more ruthless judge than the law, and that public opinion prefers the presumption of guilt to the presumption of innocence. This is how NGOs take on the appearance of 'taxis of the sea' in the collective mindset, as an Italian journalist used to say, and are often seen as enemies of national security rather than support or replacements for state reception policies.
What complicates the understanding of the true nature of humanitarian organizations is the theorization of the so-called pull factor, a force equal and opposite to those that push migrants away from their homeland (push factors such as poverty, wars or persecution) and which precisely draws them towards. The pull factor would consist of, according to governments who refers to old Frontex reports, too loose and open reception policies, and of the presence of ships or people ready to rescue them from possible drownings. But according to a study conducted by two Italian researchers, Matteo Villa and Eugenio Cususmano, for the European University Institute, the analysis of the official data provided by the International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and their comparison with the NGOs' data on sea rescues in SAR zones show that there is no correlation between increased migrant departures and sea rescues by these organizations.
The study examines data on departures since October 2014: since then, the NGOs have rescued 115,000 migrants at sea, but a monthly analysis of departures from Libya shows that these rescues have not attracted migrants to leave Libya for European shores.
It is clear that the governments' acceptance of the non-existence of this correlation is made more complex by the legitimization conferred on the pull factor by the European Union itself, through the work of Frontex. By referring to this correlation in its own report, the EU agency for border control and surveillance has surely encouraged a suspicious approach towards NGOs and migration in general, but it's worth saying that the agency does not mention the pull factor anymore in its official document since its Secretary General has resigned from his role for having covered some mass rejections of asylum seekers - illegal according to EU standards - by Frontex or member state personnel.
This change of course, not overly radical and nonetheless uncomfortable, is struggling to gain traction among authorities, especially on the Greek islands, where the European Union has tolerated and covered up for years illegal pushbacks and the existence of hotspots like the one on Lesvos, where migrants still live as in open-air prisons without knowing if and when their asylum claims will be answered. Lesvos itself was witness and field of another serious violation of the refugees' rights, once more endorsed by the European Institutions: in 2020, Turkey left its outbound borders open to refugees, using a humanitarian crisis as a weapon to blackmail the European Union, which had been paying millions since their 2016 agreement on cooperation to manage migrants’ fluxes. Turkey wanted more money, EU did not want more refugees, and the crisis was forcibly ended with more and more cash. And more and more people stuck in hotspots, while Greek populations and authorities vented the frustration of all those arrivals with violence.
That year multiple, even violent attacks by police and citizens on activists on the island were reported, with cars being destroyed and volunteers being beaten up, until it escalated to the fire at the Moria refugee camp in 2020 that threatened the lives of more than 10 thousand people, living in the physical space fit for 3000.
It is then that personal stories like Sara and Sean's become paradigms of the tormented relationship between authorities and activists, between government and NGOs, which should, at least theoretically, have the same objective.
The higher court in charge of conducting the trial for minor offences against them and the other convicted activists, begun in 2018, decided to end it in January this year, due to some procedural mistakes made by the prosecution (which failed to translate some documents for the foreign defendants), while other more serious crimes are not still fallen within the statute of limitations.
But the prosecution's own decision to drop the charges due to bureaucratic mishaps reveals a desire not to expose the innocence of the defendants, still leaving a presumption of guilt hovering over them.