A Lesbos court yesterday acquitted three volunteer lifeguards of Spanish NGO PROEM-AID and two volunteer lifeguards from the NGO Team Humanity. The five aid workers had been indicted for attempted smuggling of migrants.

Manuel Blanco Fernandez, a senior firefighter in Spain and one of the three lifeguards of PROEM-AID told Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) following the acquittal of the five aid workers: “I just gave a live interview on Spanish TV and I said that the real heroes are the people living on this island. All of you Greeks, but also the fishermen who were on the front line from the first moment … It was a difficult time for us all that we went through.  We are firefighters, our job is with the fire and with water not inside courts. I felt very nervous because the charges concerned a serious crime, the crime of smuggling.  Being a lifeguard, saving people, is not a crime. We need solidarity towards all human beings, no borders, no colours, nothing at all…”

 “Being a lifeguard, saving people, is not a crime. We need solidarity towards all human beings, no borders, no colours, nothing at all…”

Manuel Blanco Fernandez, volunteer lifeguard, PROEMAID

The five aid workers had been arrested in the early morning of 14 January 2016 by Greek coastguard upon their return from a search and rescue operation. The volunteer lifeguards had been informed that a boat carrying refugees was in danger off the coast of Lesbos. During the search and rescue operation, they did not find a boat in danger. The Turkish coastguard had intercepted the boat they had been called to rescue.

Haris Petsikos, the lawyer of the three Spanish lifeguards underlined the baseless nature of the charges:  “In my view as a lawyer of the Spanish (lifeguards), the outcome of the trial was anticipated. And I say this simply because neither proof nor simple indications emerged from the investigation regarding the commission of any kind of offence.  Thus, the court ruling was absolutely rational and the only ruling that was just and responded to the evidence provided and the hearing that took place…”

RSA experience – deriving from its support of survivors of shipwrecks that have occurred in recent years on Lesbos – shows that the presence of search and rescue teams is particularly crucial. Hundreds of refugees mainly during the increased arrivals of the summer of 2015 have received precious support from volunteer lifeguards when their lives were at risk at sea and there was no other kind of support from a Greek or European actor. Currently, there is only one volunteer lifeguard team in Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos that provides support to the Greek coastguard during search and rescue operations.

Refugee Support Aegean welcomes the court ruling, appeals for the non-criminalization of rescue at sea and calls for recognition of the humanitarian work that volunteer lifeguards do.

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