Seeking Refuge in Chains: The Plight of Homayoun Sabetara

Photo: Refugees imprisoned in the Malakassa closed camp in Athens. photo by myself.

In September 2022, Homayoun Sabetara, from Iran, was handed an 18-year prison sentence for “aiding unauthorized entry into the EU from third countries.” Having driven a car from Turkey to Greece with six others seeking refuge, he was apprehended by the police in Thessaloniki. For the past two years, the almost 60-year-old has remained behind bars, while his daughter, Mahtab Sabetara, has been tirelessly advocating for his release, along with other refugees detained in Greece under charges of “people smuggling.”

“He fled Iran driven by the need to protect his life and that of our family. On a dangerous journey across the Turkish-Greek border, in a car with seven other fleeing people, he was forced to take the wheel.” Mahtab Sabetara wrote in a petition.

The border fence on the Evros River, the traditional starting point of the Balkan route, now fortified with advanced surveillance technology, is set to be further extended, according to an announcement by the re-elected Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the right-wing conservative NewDemocracy party. Notably, over 80 percent of refugee arrests on their way to the EU occurred on the Evros last year. However, information about arrests related to smuggling has been inaccessible in Greece since the change of government in 2020. Despite this lack of data, those detained on smuggling charges have constituted the second-largest group in already overcrowded prisons for years. Borderline-Europe, a non-governmental organization, revealed that nearly 2,200 people were arrested in February of this year on charges of “smuggling.”

The situation in Greece reflects the merging of European and national legislation with a restrictive migration policy, coupled with reporting on “organized smuggling,” ultimately leading to the criminalization of refugees. Such practices undermine the principles outlined in the Geneva Refugee Convention, which allows anyone to seek asylum without prior entry permits. While asylum seekers using vehicles or boats are technically permitted to apply for asylum, this often occurs while they are in custody, creating arduous waiting periods. Criticisms have been directed at the Greek justice system for its dysfunctionality, leading some to speculate that it might be intentional. Frequently, the mere suspicion of driving a vehicle with refugees results in a guilty verdict without due consideration of the escape circumstances, contrary witness statements, or exculpatory evidence, similar to the case of Homayoun Sabetara.

Recently, Homayoun Sabetara’s daughter accepted an escape aid award on his behalf and spoke about the historical significance of those who have assisted in escapes, traditionally regarded as martyrs. In the freehomayyoun petition, Mahtab Sabetara highlights the personal toll on her family but emphasizes that her father’s fate is fundamentally a political issue, given that he is just one among many facing such challenges.

In 2022, a staggering 1,374 individuals were arrested on charges of smuggling, and they faced an alarming average prison sentence of 46 years. Now, it is high time the world became aware of the plight of innocent individuals, like my father, who endure immense suffering as a consequence of the criminalization of migration at Europe’s external borders. This realization fuels my determination to dedicate all my efforts to the “Free Homayoun” campaign. Our primary objective is to shine a spotlight on the grave injustice inflicted upon people like my father. We fervently advocate for his immediate release, along with the release of all migrants unjustly accused of “smuggling.”

from the petition

Dimitris Choulis, lawyer on a similar case had mention that: “In Greece of 2020, when we have the policy of systematic push-backs, you put one more obstacle for asylum seekers: even if you make it here, we will criminalize you. As an asylum seeker, what can he do? Travel here and leave his child alone in Turkey until the end of the procedure?”

He speaks of Hassan, a refugee from Afghanistan who made his way to Samos Island in November 2020, accompanied by a group of fellow refugees. At 23 years old, Hasan found himself apprehended and accused of a grave offense like Homayoun. It was alleged that during their journey, he took control of the boat, which led to serious consequences.

Specifically, he was facing charges of “transportation of 24 third-country nationals into Greek territory without permission” (commonly referred to as smuggling). However, the situation was further complicated by the fact that 23 lives were put in danger during this transportation, and tragically, the journey resulted in the death of a young child.

As a consequence of these charges, Hasan is confronted with an extraordinarily severe sentence. He stands to potentially face life imprisonment for the death of one individual, and an additional 10 years of imprisonment for each person he transported, summing up to an astonishing 230 years in addition to life imprisonment.

Hasan was saying that “We are just migrants and when the migrants want to come, the smugglers won’t come. They will force the migrants to bring the boat to its destination themselves, whether they know how to drive a boat or not.” After all, Hasan has been acquitted of all charges and is now free.

Currently, Mahtab Sabetara reveals that she has limited contact with her father due to his transfer from Korydallos prison to Trikala, a distant location 350 kilometers away. This sudden transfer has left him without funds, as she couldn’t send him money, and payments must be made by post through a person registered in Greece. Although she tries to find people to help with the money transfer, it often proves challenging as the funds sometimes get returned.

Consequently, her father finds himself without money, a phone card, and no means to communicate with family members. Moreover, his prison conditions have worsened, and as a man with a history of cancer and respiratory issues, his medical care remains inadequate.

After the tragic sinking of a ship carrying more than hundreds refugees in the waters of southern Greece, a devastating humanitarian crisis unfolded. The incident shocked the world and brought to light the perilous conditions faced by countless individuals seeking refuge and safety. As a response to this tragedy, Greek authorities took swift action and arrested nine people among of the rescued ones on charges of human trafficking. In a situation where there are serious doubts about the role of the Greek Coast Guard in the sinking of the ship.

However, the aftermath of this disaster also revealed the complexities surrounding immigration and asylum policies in Greece. There have been concerns raised by the international community about how the Greek authorities handle such cases. Some critics argue that Greece’s anti-immigration stance and strict asylum policies contribute to the dangerous journeys undertaken by refugees, forcing them to seek alternative, often life-threatening routes to reach safety.

What you think?