People who help refugees must not be treated as criminals, warns the International Rescue Committee (IRC) ahead of a landmark trial on the Greek island of Lesvos today.

A group of 24 aid workers, including Sarah Mardini (a Syrian refugee who inspired Netflix drama The Swimmers) and Sean Binder (an Irish search and rescue diver), will face trial today simply for helping refugees and other migrants at risk of drowning at sea.

The European Parliament’s research service has branded the trial Europe’s “largest case of criminalisation of solidarity”.

Ahead of the trial, the IRC is calling on the Greek authorities to drop all charges against Sarah, Sean and the other 22 defendants. If they are found guilty, it will set a dangerous precedent that will have a chilling effect on humanitarian work across Europe.

Dimitra Kalegeropoulou, IRC Greece Director, says:

“It’s worrying to see the Greek authorities play into a dangerous public discourse that demonises human rights defenders. This is too often echoed by the media, and weaponised by far-right groups. Today's trial of Sarah, Sean and their colleagues is a prime example of this worrying trend.

"Civil society organisations in Greece, including the IRC, are seldom acknowledged for their key role in providing shelter, infrastructure, child protection, health and integration services, plus so much more for people on the move. Rather than demonising these humanitarians, the Greek state should be celebrating their contributions.

"We stand in solidarity with Sarah, Sean and the other human rights defenders on trial in Lesvos today. Helping people in need is not a crime.”

Harlem Désir, IRC Senior Vice President, Europe, says:

“Nobody should be prosecuted for seeking safety, and nobody should be punished for simple acts of kindness and solidarity with the most vulnerable. It’s not just humanitarian workers that will face trial in Lesvos today, but the EU’s own moral compass and commitment to upholding human rights.

"Even more alarmingly, the trial is emblematic of a broader trend towards the EU disrupting people’s journeys and deterring people from reaching Europe - often leaving them trapped in dire conditions or at risk at sea - rather than protecting them along their journeys or providing routes to safety. 

"It’s time for the EU to forge a new approach that puts humanity and dignity front and centre when dealing with the desperate situation in the Mediterranean, and beyond.”

The IRC began operating in Greece in 2015, when Europe was experiencing a peak in migration. What started as an emergency response on the island of Lesvos quickly expanded to Thessaloniki and then to camps on the mainland. Currently, the IRC operates in Lesvos and Athens, providing mental health services, accommodation in apartments for unaccompanied boys and girls, as well as single mothers, and integration programming. The IRC also runs RefugeeInfo, an online platform providing reliable and accessible information in five languages, to refugees across the country.