January 14, 2016 was a cold, windy night on the Greek island of Lesvos. The often agitated Aegean sea was particularly unwelcoming for the thousands of refugees determined to cross into Europe from Turkey. At about 2 am that night, Salam Aldeen, a Danish-Iraqi volunteer working on the island since September 2015, received a distress call about two dinghies in trouble at sea. As usual, he alerted the Greek coastguard before heading out in a rescue boat, in search of the distraught dinghies. Aldeen was joined by four other volunteers.
It wasn’t his first time responding to a call of that nature. Over the course of four months, Aldeen and a team of volunteer lifeguards had already come to the aid of over 200 boats transporting refugees across the Aegean.
Unlike previous rescue missions, however, Aldeen and his colleagues were intercepted by a military vessel and forced to turn back to shore. On arrival, they were rounded up, arrested, and accused of human smuggling. They were released forty-eight hours later. While his colleagues were ordered to pay bail of 5000 euros each, Aldeen was forced to pay 10,000 euros and banned from leaving Greece while he awaits trial on human smuggling charges. He faces up to ten years in prison and is obligated to check in weekly with Greek authorities.
In the year since his unjust run-in with the law, Aldeen has continued to work tirelessly in support of refugees stranded in Greece. Through his small donation-run organization, Team Humanity, Aldeen has delivered aid to those in need in Idomeni, a town on the border with Macedonia, in the Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, and currently in Oreokastro, Thessaloniki where government-run camps have been set up.
In the video below, posted to his Facebook page on the one-year anniversary of his arrest, Alden sounds drained and discouraged. He describes, in detail, his many efforts to alleviate the suffering of refugees over the past year and appeals to the international community to do what it can to come to his aid. “I need to see my family again,” he says. “I’m tired, very tired. I want to have my peace back.”
In the past few years, Greece, which is struggling under a crippling economic crisis, has been hard hit by the refugee crisis. The government has struggled to accommodate and provide for the more than 60,000 refugees and economic migrants now stranded within its borders. International aid organizations and an extensive network of independent volunteers — men and women who, like Aldeen, left their comfortable lives behind to do whatever it takes to ease human suffering — have been instrumental in providing the life-saving aid Greece, like other European governments, has been unwilling (or unable) to provide.
For its part, the European Union has been employing all possible strategies to deter refugees and migrants from attempting to reach Europe’s shores. But, while these efforts have managed to stem the flow of migrants in recent months, especially in light of the EU-Turkey deal, they have failed to entirely eliminate Europe’s appeal as a safe and viable destination.
If the EU was truly concerned with the catastrophic effects of human smuggling, European governments would facilitate and increase legal pathways so they could monitor and more effectively manage flows of refugees and migrants. They would not, for example, crack down on volunteers, whose duty to rescue is enshrined in international law.
“I don’t regret anything,” Aldeen wrote on his Facebook page recently about his situation. “The only thing we did was try to rescue people from the deadly dark sea. If it happened today, I will do it again.”
Salam Aldeen’s efforts should be rewarded not punished. A petition addressed to the Council of the European Union calling on the Greek government and the EU to drop the charges against him and his fellow defendants is circulating online. Show your support for the independent and heroic volunteers of Lesvos by signing it here.