Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre, and Enrique Rodriguez, three firefighters from Seville, Spain, who have helped out in multiple refugee rescue missions on the Greek island of Lesbos, could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Greek authorities accuse them of smuggling refugees into the European Union.
The authorities say the firefighters “attempted to smuggle people into Greece” because “the night (they refer to) they didn’t have anyone on board,” Manuel Blanco, one of the firefighters and vice-president of the Spanish NGOs Proemaid, told Euronews.
A fine line that changes everything
“If a person is drowning and you bring them ashore to try and save them, that can be seen as facilitating their entry,” said Blanco. This, in his opinion, blurs the fine line between human trafficking and humanitarian aid.
Blanco spoke to Euronews from Brussels, where he’s trying to gather support from Spanish MEPs ahead of the May 7 trial in Mitilene, Lesbos.
“The complaint came a few months ago, but we are starting to react now,” Blanco explains.
The firefighter and his co-workers are very worried about the situation.
“We are not smugglers. We are rescuers doing humanitarian work to help the local authorities who don’t have the capacity to help the huge number of Syrian refugees escaping the war.”
Lesbos became the face of the worst refugee crisis to hit Europe since World War II. Between January 2015 and February 2016, 937.000 people crossed into Greece from Turkey. About half of them arrived to the island of Lesbos according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
An unprecedented humanitarian crisis
Blanco said that in his time as a firefighter he’s never seen a crisis like the one in Lesbos: “The humanitarian crisis has been brutal. I’ve been a firefighter for 20 years and I thought I had seen every sort of emergency response scenario but I hadn’t experienced a humanitarian crisis of this caliber.”
The first time Blanco joined the rescue missions in Greece was in December 2015, at the peak of the humanitarian crisis and the last one was in 2017, after his detention by local authorities.
Not leaving the island after being detained was the “the best way to prove that we weren’t doing anything wrong,” he said.
“How you can compare a person who smuggles people for money with rescuers who save people’s lives?” asks Blanco the European Parliament while his court date approaches.