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Queen Mary academic calls for policy change on the rescue of refugees

Lawyers from the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), including Dr Violeta Moreno-Lax from Queen Mary’s School of Law, have filed an unprecedented application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg challenging Greece’s crackdown on the search and rescue actors of refugees at sea.

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Asylum seekers crossing the English Channel have attracted media attention in recent weeks
Asylum seekers crossing the English Channel have attracted media attention in recent weeks

A group of lawyers have accused Greek authorities of violating human-rights laws when they arrested Salam Kamal-Aldeen in 2016 for trying to help asylum-seekers at sea reach Europe’s shores.

In January 2016 Salam Kamal-Aldeen was operating a rescue boat, the Team Humanity, from the island of Lesbos, helping the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) to locate and assist three migrant dinghies in distress.

Although these had already been intercepted by the Turkish authorities by the time the Team Humanity arrived close to the border of Greek territorial waters, Mr Aldeen and his crew were arrested and charged with attempted smuggling. Their rescue vessel was confiscated and severe restrictive measures were imposed on the volunteers. 

Calls for policy change

The lawyers from GLAN, are calling for EU Member States, including Greece, to discontinue their criminalisation of search and rescue activities and terminate their crackdown on civil-society organisations and individual human rights defenders assisting boat migrants. 

Dr Violeta Moreno-Lax from Queen Mary’s School of Law was a legal advisor to GLAN. She said: “The Strasbourg Court has now the opportunity to condemn the growing trend in Greece and Europe of criminalising solidarity.

“Rescue is not a crime; it is a binding duty under international law. Humanitarian assistance of persons in distress at sea should never be prosecuted. Attacking civil society constitutes an assault on the main values of democracy.

“Rescuers should instead be celebrated and protected as selfless guarantors of the most basic human rights.”

Exposing human rights violations 

Mr Aldeen’s prosecution is part of a targeted repressive move against rescue NGOs in the EU. The application filed with the Strasbourg court exposes the illegality of the Greek authorities’ crackdown on human rights defenders working to preserve the integrity of the international system of search and rescue. This arrangement compels captains of all vessels to render assistance to persons in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality or legal status.

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