Three Syrian refugees face 18 life sentences because they steered the boat

by Julia Winkler, borderline-europe

Deutsch | Ελληνικά | Italiano | عربى

On the Greek islands, a scandal unfolds: After the tragic shipwreck on Christmas Eve 2021 near the Greek island of Paros, three survivors are turned into felons. Because Abdallah J., Kheiraldin A. and Mohamad B. took over piloting tasks, they are to be imprisoned for life. On 05 May, the trial against them will take place on Syros.

At 8 a.m. on the 24th of December 2021, a boat set off from the Turkish coast heading for Italy in an attempt to bypass Greece, infamous for its systematic and violent push-backs. On board were more than 80 people, desperate to leave Syria and Turkey and hoping to start a new life in Europe.

Among them were people like Ibrahim B., who had already lived in Germany as a recognised refugee for almost seven years before traveling to Greece for a visit in 2021, where he was stripped of his papers by the Greek authorities and illegally deported to Turkey. On the boat, there was also the 23-year-old Palestinian Rawnd Alayde from the refugee camp Yarmouk Syria who wished to unite with her parents and four siblings in Germany. She had not seen them for more than six years after the German authorities turned their back on her appeals for family reunion, forcing her to seek alternative routes. Rawnd lost her life during the crossing.

Among them were also Abdallah J. and Mohamad B., both 32-year-old fathers of four, and Kheiraldin A., a 39-year-old father of two children. Abdallah has family in Austria, Mohamad in Germany, Kheiraldin in Germany and Finland. Kheiraldin decided to leave his home, his two children and his wife in Turkey because his two-year-old daughter needs a surgery she cannot get in Turkey. In Europe, he was hoping to ask for asylum and bring his daughter there, too.

By deciding to go directly to Italy, the 80 passengers hoped to have chosen a "safer" option in two respects. First, they would be traveling on a larger and more stable boat than on a rubber boat. Secondly, they wanted to avoid Greek territory and thus violent and illegal push-backs. This came at a price. Survivors testified that the journey cost between 7,000 and 10,000 Euro per passenger. Some of them had to sell all their possessions to be able to afford the trip.

Neither Abdallah, nor Mohamad or Kheiraldin had that money. However, they had some mechanical knowledge which they could offer as payment. Consequently, they agreed to take over some piloting tasks in return for a cheaper fare.

This is a common occurrence on the flight route from Turkey to Europe. Refugees usually have to steer the boats themselves. While in the past smugglers took their "clients" to their desired destination, e.g. drop them off safely on the other side of the Aegean, due to the ever-increasing militarisation of borders and the criminalisation of migration, this has become too high a risk and therefore not been part of the offer for years.

However, someone has to steer the boat. Thus, some steer it because the smuggler left halfway through the journey to avoid arrest (such as in the case of the #Samos2); others - like Abdallah, Kheiraldin and Mohamad - steer it because they don't have enough money for the crossing (or that of their family) and have to pay less in return; others steer it because they are forced to do so at gunpoint. Some also volunteer because they have experience in seafaring and rightly think that it is better and safer for everyone if they take the helm than someone totally inexperienced.

But it is precisely this logic that will be their undoing in the aftermath. The person who steered the boat is not only held responsible by the European authorities as the "smuggler", but also for all the suffering during the journey. The person is arrested, treated like a felon, and put behind bars for decades. All the blame for the increasingly deadly and violent routes is placed on them and away from the European authorities and their border policies. And while the death toll in the Aegean Sea rises, the Greek Coast Guard, in cooperation with FRONTEX, continues to conduct illegal and brutal pushbacks.

Based on this interpretation of people smuggling, numerous people have already been convicted and imprisoned for years - regardless of the fact that they were trying to bring themselves and others to safety. As documented by CPT - Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe and Deportation Monitoring Aegean, the filing of such charges against migrants arriving on the Greek islands has been systematically used by the Greek state for several years. The arrests that follow these often-unfounded accusations of smuggling are arbitrary, and the trials flout basic standards of fairness. Without sufficient evidence, they are usually arrested upon arrival and kept in pre-trial detention for months. When their case finally comes to court, their trials average only 38 minutes in length, leading to an average sentence of 44 years and fines over 370.000 Euro.

The story of Abdullah, Kheiraldin and Mohamad is a particularly tragic example of this. All they wanted, just like everyone else on the ship, was to reach Europe.

In fact, when they saw the boat on the morning of the 24th of December, they refused to drive it as it was far too small for the number of people. They tried to convince everyone that it was too dangerous and told people to leave. However, no one dared to decide against the trip at this point. Most of the passengers had spent their last money on it, and also the armed smugglers left them no choice, urging them to board quickly so as not to be noticed by the Turkish army, which was patrolling the shores heavily. There was no possibility of return.

Consequently, Abdallah took on the role as the captain, Kheiraldin as the mechanic and Mohamad as the assistant. For 160km, they tried their best to steer the boat as safely as possible past the Greek islands towards Italy. After they had already been on the water for over ten hours, one of the engines broke off due to unstable weather conditions. Soon after, the second one followed. Abdallah, Kheiraldin and Mohamad tried their best to fix the problem, but there was not much they could do. When water began to seep into the boat, panic broke out, causing it eventually to capsize near the Greek island of Paros at around 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Fishermen and the Hellenic Rescue Team immediately rushed to help when they noticed the tragedy that was unfolding only a few kilometers away from the island. 63 people could be saved but 18 lost their lives in the waves.

On the island, the coast guard and the police questioned the survivors. All were still in deep shock. A few hours earlier, they had almost drowned. Some of them had just lost their loved ones. Some had spent hours in the freezing sea before being rescued. However, the authorities were not primarily interested in recording the victims' stories and informing their families or providing them with legal information. The only thing they were interested in was finding out who had steered the boat.

Two days later, on the 26th of December, the people were not only guarded on the premises of the Paros Technical School, but their phones were taken away from them and no one was allowed to talk to them, neither journalists nor the local volunteers who had supported them just a few hours before. A coast guard official referred to the people as "prisoners" suspected of people smuggling and the murder of 16 people at the time.

On the 27th of December, all the survivors were taken to the mainland. All but three. Abdullah, Kheiraldin and Mohamad were taken to Chios prison. There they remain in pre-trial detention to this day.

They are accused of their own unauthorised entry and of having assisted 81 third-country nationals to enter the country without authorisation, with the aggravating circumstances of endangering their lives and causing the death of 18 persons. Furthermore, they are accused of having acted for profit and of being part of a criminal organisation.

This is a particularly perfidious abuse of a law whose purpose is supposedly to protect refugees from exploitation. The authorities base the accusation of profiteering on the fact that the three received a reduced price for the trip, in return for taking over the piloting roles. This means that the law is not only punishing those it claims to protect, but in fact the most marginalized among them who cannot afford the trip and are thus forced to expose themselves to even greater risk.

Abdallah, Mohamad and Kheiraldin are being scapegoated to divert attention from the EU’s responsibility for these tragedies, shifting the blame to those already suffering the most. The shipwreck of the 24th of December 2021 and the death of 18 people are not the fault of Abdallah, Mohamad and Kheiraldin. They are the direct result of the EU’s escalating closure of borders, leaving people with no alternative than to risk their lives and those of their families on increasingly life-threatening journeys. Most recently, the systematic violence and pushbacks by Greek authorities have led more and more refugees to try to bypass Greece and head directly to Italy, making flight routes even more dangerous and expensive.

"Once again, we have a case where scapegoats take the place of the accused, facing crimes with very serious charges and threatening sentences that carry up to 18 times life sentence imprisonment. This case concerns three Syrian refugees who were forced by Turkish smugglers to take over the operation of the vessel at gunpoint. It should be noted that all of them reported at the prosecution stage that they were held captive in a house by armed Turkish traffickers before the departure of the vessel. Of particular importance, however, is the role of the Turkish coast guard, which is clearly said to be involved, as it allowed the vessel to pass after the Turkish port authorities contacted the Turkish smugglers by telephone, which means that the transfer was known if not in cooperation with them. Last but not least there is the question arises why they did not stop on a Greek island and instead took the risk of going to Italy. What were they afraid of? This question could lead to the real criminal, namely the policy of "Fortress Europe", Alexandros Georgoulis, on of their lawyers, comments on the case.

The shipwreck near Paros was the third in the Aegean Sea within a week. Already on the 21st of December, a boat sank south of the island of Folegandros, and on the 23rd of December another boat crashed into Pori, a rocky island north of Antikythira. In total, at least 31 people died, many of whom are still missing.

“This week, I woke up to the heart-breaking news that my daughter breathed her last at sea. I wish I could have hugged her so tight. Authorities could have saved her life had they granted her the right to reunite with us”, said the father of Rawnd Alayde.

We demand:

  • All charges against Abdallah, Kheiraldin and Mohamad to be dropped;
  • Freedom for all those imprisoned for “boat driving” despite the fact that there is no alternative to reach the European Union;
  • An end to the criminalization of migration and the incarceration of people on the move.


Background info


Friday, 29 April 2022
© Photo Unsplash, Alwi Alaydrus