‘Hero’ Syrian swimmer arrested by Greek police for helping migrants reach Lesbos

Greek police have charged a Syrian "hero" refugee, who was once hailed for saving people from a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, with helping migrants illegally enter the country.

Sara Mardini, 23, who has settled in Germany, was arrested last week in what police said was an operation to dismantle a "criminal network" involving 30 members of an NGO working on the island on Lesbos, where thousands of migrants are living in camps.

"For me, this is clearly a case of criminalising help given to refugees," Haris Petsikos, her lawyer said, adding that she is being detained in a prison outside of Athens.

He said Ms Mardini, who denies the charges, had been volunteering on the island for Emergency Response Centre International.

She was arrested alongside one of the NGO’s leaders, Greek national Nassos Karakitsos and Irish volunteer Sean Binder.

Ms Mardini and her younger sister Yusra’s struggle to reach Lesbos from Turkey made the news in 2015, when they used their swimming skills to pull to safety their water-logged boat with another 18 people onboard.

The following year Yusra, now a UNHCR goodwill ambassador, participated on the refugee team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and Ms Mardini went on to win a scholarship studying economics and social sciences at Bard College in Berlin.

British film company Working Title Films is set to turn the story of the sisters into a film, directed by Stephen Daldry, who is behind Billy Elliot and The Reader.

"We are in close contact with Sara’s legal counsel and these clearly unsubstantiated charges seem more about halting the operations of the NGO in question than about any actions of Sara or her fellow volunteer," said Florian Becker, managing director of the German college, who said she is committed to helping refugees. "The priority is to get her out of prison."

Police accuse members of the NGO of offering direct assistance to people traffickers, asking for advance warning of arrivals without passing on information to authorities. Lesbos has been a key gateway into the European Union since the start of the bloc’s migration crisis in 2015.

At the height of the influx, some 5,000 migrants and refugees, mostly from war-torn Syria, landed on the island’s beaches on a daily basis.

It now has the highest concentration of migrants in Greece, with the worst conditions in the camp of Moria where over 8,300 people live, according to UN figures – about triple the nominal capacity.

Leave a Reply