If Hanad Abdi Mohammad had known taking the wheel of the smuggler's boat, poised to capsize will land him in a Greek prison for 142 years, it might not have made a difference.
It was a matter of life and death.
With more than 30 individuals on board, he decided to save their lives.
After the harrowing ordeal, the 28-year-old Somalian citizen is now serving his prison term on the Greek Island of Chios. According to a Lesbos criminal court record, Mohammad was sentenced to 142 years and 10 days for smuggling undocumented immigrants to Greece. However, the court also stipulated he would only serve 20 years which is the maximum allowed under the country’s criminal code.
The harsh sentence was also attributed to the fact two lives were lost at sea.
Over the years, Greece has taken a hard stance towards undocumented migrants attempting to seek asylum, using its borders as the gateway into Europe. Between 2015 and 2016, more than 1 million refugees came through Greece, which led to political upheavals and the rise of anti-immigrant right-wing parties introducing stricter laws across the European Union.
In response to the backlash received from civil societies, the Greek government declared it is within its right to defend its borders, and its justice system is at par with other developed nations in the western hemisphere.
With many such cases similar to Mohammad, Legal Centre Lesvos, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to refugees, claimed there is often no concrete evidence to support claims that the suspects are smugglers other than the fact they are caught being behind the wheel.
Reportedly, smugglers had abandoned vessels for the past two years since Greece introduced the strict laws. Upon the boat’s arrival at the Greek shores, one migrant is usually singled out by immigration officials, mainly the ones found behind the wheel.
Eight migrants who were on the boat Mohammad piloted said the Turkish smuggler who transported them, abandoned the vessel after the Turkish Coast Guard forced them towards the Greek waters. Furthermore, they described Mohammad as the hero who had taken the wheel in order to save their lives.
However, only two of the witnesses were allowed to testify in court based on the coronavirus restriction.
“Casting a refugee as a smuggler is treating a small-time drug offender like Escobar. In none of these cases has there been an investigation by the police and judicial authorities to trace the smugglers. Those arrested are never asked who gave you the boat, who abandoned you at sea?” said Clio Papapadoleon, a prominent human rights lawyer, according to New York Times.
Some human rights activists believe the root cause of the problem stemmed from the breakdown of the agreement between Turkey and the European Union. According to Human Rights Watch, under the 2016 agreement, Turkey agreed to halt the flow of migrants who pass through its territories and take back refugees who do not qualify for European protection in exchange for billions of euros in aid.
Unless the European Union can incentivize Turkey back to the negotiation table, most stakeholders predict a rise in lawlessness and hardening immigration policies in countries where refugees try to arrive.