‘I don’t smuggle people … I save them’, migrant rescue leader says after being acquitted of human trafficking

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Salam Aldeen of the rescue group Team Humanity saves a child on the Greek Island of Lesvos at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015. (Getty Images)
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Volunteers and NGOs across Europe have flocked to the Greek islands since the summer of 2015 to help rescue and shelter the refugees and migrants, who have been arriving by boat on European shores from conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Iraq. (Getty Images)
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Volunteers and NGOs across Europe have flocked to the Greek islands since the summer of 2015 to help rescue and shelter the refugees and migrants, who have been arriving by boat on European shores from conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Iraq. (Getty Images)
Updated 22 May 2018
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‘I don’t smuggle people … I save them’, migrant rescue leader says after being acquitted of human trafficking

  • "I lost two years of my life doing what I loved, helping, but I was criminalized for doing it,” Team Humanity founder Salam Aldeen tells Arab News in an exclusive interview.
  • Aldeen founded Team Humanity in 2015 while on the island working alongside his partner and co-founder Amal Mahmut, a German citizen who was once a refugee herself.

JEDDAH: Exhausted and relieved, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, a volunteer group that helps boatloads of refugees off Europe to arrive safely to shore, is finally home in Denmark after being acquitted of charges that he was trying to smuggle the people he was actually assisting.

Aldeen faced a life sentence for answering a humanitarian call. He was arrested on his boat while trying to save lives from a brutal sea off the Greek island of Lesbos. He and four other volunteers were charged with attempting to facilitate illegal entry and smuggling. 

“How do you arrest someone for helping others?” Aldeen asked. “It questions the lawful and just reasons why volunteers do what they do and it’s shameful that there’s a single hint of doubt as to their motives for doing so. I lost two years of my life doing what I loved, helping, but I was criminalized for doing it.”

Born in Moldova to immigrant parents who later became residents of Denmark after fleeing the civil war in 1992, Aldeen is slowly adjusting to life back home. In an exclusive interview with Arab News, he expressed his desire to rebuild his life after spending more than two years helping to save and assist refugees and migrants arriving on the island during the peak of the refugee crisis. “Team Humanity is not a temporary organization,” he said. “Now that I’m back, I plan on expanding my operations, but I’ll never go back to Lesvos. The mental toll was greater than I anticipated and now, at 35, I must start my life all over again and I’ll command from my base here in Denmark.”

Aldeen was originally motivated by a single photograph that brought the extent of the refugee crisis to the world’s attention in 2015. “One picture changed everything: three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned in the Aegean Sea and was found face-down on a Turkish beach,” said Aldeen. “Whatever plans I had that year were scratched. I booked a ticket to Lesbos island for one week in September 2015.” 

Volunteers and NGOs across Europe have flocked to the Greek islands since the summer of 2015 to help rescue and shelter the refugees and migrants, who have been arriving by boat on European shores from conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Iraq.

“Islanders were doing all they could to save refugees and migrants, but it was an ongoing war for them still,” said Aldeen. “The camps on the island were overflowing and Team Humanity, as well as many NGOs on the island, did their best to provide the health services they needed and were given food and shelter too.”

With their combined efforts and the skills of doctors, lifeguards and firefighters, the volunteers have helped save the lives of thousands of people landing on the island. “I am grateful to the ones that immediately responded to our first call for help addressed to the international community to help us cope with the refugee crisis,” the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, has said.

“Helping refugees on the island was a constant rush,” Aldeen recalled. “I never took a break and survived on power naps. A bond between volunteers bloomed as the magnitude of the crisis hit us with each arrival and all hands were on deck.”

Aldeen founded Team Humanity in 2015 while on the island working alongside his partner and co-founder Amal Mahmut, a German citizen who was once a refugee herself. The team’s volunteers came from across the world, all with the intent of saving lives and making sure that refugees were provided with help before moving on to their next destination in Europe. 

“I helped maneuver boats to reach land safely and at times I would need to head out with my boat along with a few volunteers, with the acknowledgement of the Greek coastguard, to save migrants and refugees from their sinking dinghies,” Aldeen explained. “All volunteers were cooperating with the authorities. They needed all the help they could get for it was overwhelming at times.” But Aldeen got mixed up in the law on Jan. 14, 2016, when he was out on patrol with four other volunteers, fellow countryman Mohammed Abbassi and three firefighters from Seville, Spain, with the group Proem-Aid: Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre and Jose Enrique Rodriguez. 

After receiving a distress call from a passenger on a sinking dinghy full of people and clearance from the Greek port authority, they were attempting to find it when the Greek coastguard intercepted them and arrested all five. The people on the capsized boat were later found by the Turkish coastguard.

Latorre said they still don’t understand the case against them. “We are an organization that works with papers registered with the local authorities and we always notify our embassy with our progress,” he said.

After being freed on bond, Aldeen was obligated to stay in Greece and check in with the authorities every week. “Up until the day of the trial, I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to continue my life’s work. I feared for myself, my family and loved ones. But I feared most for the people that I won’t be able to save,” he said. 

Still, he used his two years there as an opportunity to expand his operations to more dire locations such as Camp Idomeni, in northern Greece near the Macedonian border.

“I did what I could with the resources I had and the connections I made. All the projects were temporary since the authorities moved migrants and refugees constantly, but my time in Greece was very efficient. I helped erect shelters, schools, mosques, churches and houses of worship.”

Despite the prosecution, all the volunteers continued their work on Lesvos, supporting the Greek authorities and providing services at Camp Moria, the largest camp on the island and home to more than 7,600 asylum seekers, including about 400 unaccompanied minors. 

Fast-forward to the trial of May 7. Aldeen and the rest of the volunteers were acquitted of their crimes after a judge set them free owing to discrepancies in the testimonies and evidence. 

“I buried people with my own two hands, and this trial was 100 times harder,” Aldeen said. “After long hours of testimonies, the prosecutors and lawyers going back and forth, the judge said two words: you’re free.”

The room erupted in cheers as friends, families and supporters cried and ululated in celebration of the acquittal from all charges. While Aldeen won’t go back to Greece, he is determined to continue his work from Denmark.

“The relief we provide in Greece is one of many projects I intend on expanding,” he said. 

“Instead of targeting countries where refugees are most likely to turn to (Greece), I want to go to the source. Build homes, schools, clinics in their war-stricken countries such as Iraq, Syria and African countries where most refugees and migrants are from. I’d want to provide them with the necessary skills to be self-sufficient and bring stability to their lives using their own skills. It’s far better than providing temporary shelter or school for children. Start-ups are more reliable with long-lasting success.”

The four others, who faced 10 years in prison, went back home to recuperate after their ordeal but have vowed to return soon. Abbassi, a Danish Red Cross worker and father of two young children whose grandparents moved to Lebanon from Palestine in the 1950s, said one day he wished to bring his children there to show them where refugees arrived to come to a new land and start a new life.

“I never understood the magnitude of the situation until I came and saw it myself,” said Abbassi, 26. “The Greek authorities needed all the help they could get, and many did come. One image, one video could change your whole perspective. It did for me and everyone that came.”


Six dead in fire at Rohingya camp in Myanmar

Updated 22 min 17 sec ago
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Six dead in fire at Rohingya camp in Myanmar

  • The UN Human Rights Council has accused top Myanmar generals of genocide over the bloody campaign, allegations the country strongly denies.
  • Myanmar has vowed to close nearly 20 of the camps around Sittwe in the coming months.

YANGON, Myanmar: Six Rohingya were killed early Friday after a blaze tore through an overcrowded camp for the persecuted minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the local fire service said.
Global attention has focused on the 720,000 Rohingya Muslims forced from the state’s north into Bangladesh last year by a brutal military crackdown.
The UN Human Rights Council has accused top Myanmar generals of genocide over the bloody campaign, allegations the country strongly denies.
But less visible are the 129,000 Rohingya confined to squalid camps further south near the capital Sittwe following an earlier bout of violence in 2012.
Hundreds were killed that year in riots between Rakhine Buddhists and the stateless minority, who were corralled into destitute camps away from their former neighbors.
The conflagration in Ohndaw Chay camp, which houses some 4,000 Rohingya and lies 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Sittwe, started just before midnight and lasted several hours, fire department official Han Soe told AFP.
“Six people, one man and five women were killed,” he said, adding that 15 communal longhouses were also destroyed in the blaze thought to have been started in a kitchen accident.
“We were able to bring the fire under control about 1:10 am this morning and had put it out completely by around 3 am,” he said.
A total of 822 people were left without shelter, local media reported.
Conditions in the camps are dire and Rohingya trapped there have virtually no access to health care, education and work, relying on food handouts from aid agencies to survive.
Access into the camps is also tightly controlled, effectively cutting their inhabitants off from the outside world and leaving their plight largely forgotten.
Fires in the camps are common because of “severe” overcrowding, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“Many camp residents have built makeshift extensions to their shelters to create more space for their families. So when a fire breaks out, it is more likely to spread quickly,” said OCHA spokesman Pierre Peron.
Hla Win, a Rohingya man from a nearby camp, told AFP that fire trucks were slow to arrive along the dilapidated roads from Sittwe and the lack of water also hampered efforts to extinguish the blaze.
“We have no ponds near the camps,” he said. “That’s why the fire destroyed so much.”
Myanmar has vowed to close nearly 20 of the camps around Sittwe in the coming months.
Rights groups say the move will achieve little without ending movement restrictions or granting Rohingya a pathway to citizenship.