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Legal perspectives on a humanitarian crisis

For years, refugees in Greece have been at a standstill. The lack of state structures and the Greek government's unwillingness to improve people's living conditions further exacerbate this situation. Hardly anyone knows the situation better than human rights lawyer Dimitris Choulis from Samos, who has been campaigning for refugees for years. Our advocacy team met with him for an interview. You can read the first part here.

On June 10th, one day after the completion of the EU elections, Alexia from Project Elpida interviewed Dimitris Choulis, a Samos-based lawyer who has been active as a human rights activist on the island since 2018. 

In the past, he has been involved in rescue missions, and has also been one of the more active voices in Greece raising awareness on the ongoing practice of pushbacks, their deadly consequences, and the legal issues surrounding them. For the past three years, Dimitris has become increasingly engaged in defending those who are wrongfully accused by Greek authorities of alleged “migrant smuggling” as part of the organisation Human Rights Legal Project Samos. During his career, he has defended Homayoun Sabetara and was part of the legal team defending the nine survivors of the 2023 Pylos shipwreck who were brought to trial on multiple counts, including “intentionally causing a shipwreck with danger to human life and with fatal result.” 

Over the noise of the air conditioners and fans, with their window shades drawn in the background, Dimitris shared many interesting opinions and stories with Alexia during their video call, which is transcribed in two parts on our blog, with part two becoming available next week.

Alexia: Hi, Dimitris, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. 

Dimitris: No problem!

Alexia: We are really happy to talk to a legal expert who has been involved in so many high-profile cases. You are a Samos-based lawyer, and Samos is actually your home. So you have seen the developments on the island not only as an activist, but also have a unique view of them as a lawyer. How would you say that things have evolved on the island over the last few years? In terms of the visibility of the many problems concerning human rights violations of migrants and refugees, for example – would you say that it has increased or decreased?

Dimitris: What’s characteristic about Samos is that, even during the really bad times of 2018 and 2019, there was no visibility. When everybody knew about Moria, there was nothing in the media about Samos, despite the conditions here being similar, and even slightly worse due to there being absolutely no adequate services. I’m not suggesting that we should rely completely on NGOs to provide for peoples’ basic needs, but while on Lesvos there were many people trying to make peoples’ lives better, whereas here on Samos there were only about five organisations. We gained some visibility afterwards since we were the first ones to really bring forth the issue with the pushbacks, as well as in recent years because of the new camp which opened on the island that was the first of its kind. During this time, we were engaged periodically with raising awareness, for example about the fact that the camp inhabitants don’t have access to water on a regular basis. But the truth is that during the last eight months or so, there has been a sort of silence. There has been an acceptance of the barbaric conditions of the camp as being “normal.” A normalisation of the fact that people don’t have spaces where there’s shade to sit outside, where there is a lack of water, where there is no way for them to travel into town because the bus fare is too expensive. We have normalised things which should be different.

Alexia: I’m assuming you’re talking about the inhabitants of the camp, that they have even accepted these living conditions themselves and view it as the new normality. But what about the local community on Samos? As a local yourself, how would you describe the reactions of the people around you to your job as a human rights lawyer? Would you say that these have changed over time as well?

Dimitris: Of course. On the one hand, Samos is a small place, so everyone more or less knows each other. But lately, my involvement in cases with a lot of media coverage and my systemic advocacy efforts have indeed changed peoples’ views on me and my work. The perception of everyone who has been brought in front of authorities being a “human trafficker” or “smuggler” does not pass as easily as before. More and more locals now know that these people are not traffickers, and that we are not defending traffickers, which is something they didn’t understand just a few years ago. They are beginning to understand now that a person who is drowning at sea and a person who is on the boat with his family cannot be a trafficker. This understanding has changed a lot.

Alexia: And based on your experience, what do you believe is the reason behind this criminalization in the first place? What are the reasons behind the criminalization of humanitarian rescue workers, such as the famous example of Sean Binder and his co-defendants, and what are the reasons for the criminalization of people who arrive on Greek shores as migrants and refugees themselves? Do these two even belong in the same ‘category’?

Dimitris: In my opinion, they belong in two different categories. On the one hand, you have people like Sean who was prosecuted and imprisoned, and has every right to be vocal about his mistreatment. However, on the other hand, you have thousands of people who are forcibly on the move – also prosecuted and imprisoned, but without a name, without public visibility, without media attention. The names of many humanitarian rescue workers are now widely known, but the people who sit behind bars not as a result of their own decision to get involved in a humanitarian project, but because of the difficult circumstances that forced them to relocate, remain anonymous. To be clear, I am not trying to divide the discourse on this topic, nor is my aim to target anyone personally – I myself have been prosecuted. I may have never been imprisoned as a result of my work, but I have been indicted three separate times. So, to answer your question: yes, there is a great effort by EU and national decisionmakers right now to criminalise humanitarian aid, and this results in the unfair prosecution of people who have chosen to support an important cause. But there is also a great effort to criminalise migration itself, and I think it is important that we know more details, know more names, and are able to tell more stories about this problem as well. For example, there was a case I defended where two young men were brought, Amir Zahiri and Akif Rasuli. Amir had embarked on his journey to Greece together with his wife who was pregnant with their second child. He met that child for the first time when they were already one year old, while being handcuffed in prison. And he only met his child after an MEP, Stelios Kouloglou, became involved with the case.

Alexia: You are making a very important point, and I also believe this should be the general attitude of anyone who is a human rights advocate. By focusing our attention solely on the more famous cases of rescuers, we risk harming the actual cause we are trying to fight for. You mentioned MEP Kouloglou and how his engagement proved to be a positive force for at least one case. We just had EU-elections, which were widely covered by the news. Discussions focused on election participation, on the preferences of different demographics, and of course, the steady and exponential rise of the far-right. What role does the EU play in your day-to-day job as a human rights lawyer? What does the EU mean to you and your clients? 

Dimitris: Unfortunately, the EU right now is an obsolete organism in a way, and it’s the EU’s own fault that it’s become obsolete. It was once built as a commercial union. However, it was followed up by the establishment of some basic humanitarian values and the importance of human rights, social ideals, and so on. Over the past fifteen years, we have forgotten everything that has to do with these social ideals, and the EU has become merely a mechanism to manage money – and to manage it badly, at that. It is now a paradise for lobbyists, and full of well-paid public service officers roaming around in Brussels. Any vision that was created by politicians in the 1980s and 1990s has been lost. And having also lost the agreed upon basis of a union that tears down walls, it has now become an instrument that builds walls with its own funds. An EU which funds FRONTEX – and FRONTEX is currently its most expensive authority – but at the same time does not spend money on healthcare and agricultural workers, is a lost cause. It’s the EU that is afraid of impoverished people arriving on its shores, and the same EU that will exploit these impoverished people later on for its own production. 

Alexia: You touched on the element of “fear” in the EU’s migration politics. The results of the forced movements from Ukraine after its full-scale invasion by Russia in 2022 actually had the potential to teach EU decision makers some valuable lessons about flight and migration, don’t you agree? During the first months alone, a million people from Ukraine arrived in EU-countries, and there was no scare-factor created.

Dimitris: Exactly. A million people arrived from Ukraine just within a few months, and the EU is still standing. It did not disintegrate, in fact no one talked about the problems they might create at all. Why couldn’t the EU view the 50,000 Palestinian refugees who have arrived here in the last years in the same way? One could argue that they are less in numbers, and hold more productive power, since they are mostly young men who, in my experience, show great eagerness to work hard. Of course, I am not suggesting they should be exploited or that their only value is their ability to work! But let’s look at the new “migration deal.” If I remember correctly, about 20,000 euros are spent on each displaced person in EU detention centres before possibly being sent back, according to the new EU deal. Spending these 20,000 euros to help everyone start a life here instead would enable them to get work, to learn a new language, and to find a place to stay. The only thing that’s for sure is that, after a short while, they would be a valuable asset to any community, a productive member of society in every way. 

Alexia: What you’re saying is very important and actually touches on the current media discourse. Over the past few weeks, every Greek newspaper has been reporting on the 5,000 agricultural workers who are due to arrive within the summer from Egypt to work in Greece. They have been able to migrate regularly, as they were called officially on behalf of the industry, which is how migration has worked historically in many European countries. If we position these headlines next to the ones intending to create fear about all the “single” young men who are arriving from outside Europe, it creates a stark contrast. 

Dimitris: Narratives play a huge role here. The narrative of “crisis” has been a driving factor in the EU’s migration policy. And simply said, if someone keeps talking about a “crisis” and a “problem,” a crisis and a problem is what they’ll end up getting. And that’s where the far-right comes in. So unfortunately, the EU has entrapped itself: it has tried to counter extreme right-wing language with right-wing language. But when you just constantly try to please your conservative audience, and your main goal is to not “scare” your conservative audience, that same audience will eventually turn to someone who is “authentically” expressing these political stances. They will not continue listening to you because you try to dress things up in a more beautiful way. And this is not unsimilar to what has been happening here in Greece over the past fifteen years.

In the next part, Dimitris delves more into the specific policy- and judicial situation in Greece, sharing his impressions as a lawyer defending people accused of smuggling. You can read the second part here tomorrow.

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