An interview with Seán Binder – a young humanitarian volunteer and researcher celebrated by refugee aid and human rights organisations in Europe

UAI recently conducted an interview with Seán Binder, a young German-Irish man who began volunteering in search and rescue (SAR) on the island of Lesvos in Greece in 2017 after completing his Masters. In the summer of 2018, Seán and several of his NGO colleagues were arrested and charged with serious crimes. Seán spent 106 days in a Greek jail before he was released on bail after a campaign carried out by friends, family, supporters and various human rights organisations.

United Against InHumanity (UAI): Thank you for accepting to speak to us. What led you to begin volunteering and working with refugees?

Seán Binder: As a kid growing up right along the stormy Atlantic on the southern coast of Ireland, I spent much of my youth being pummelled by the surf. While I gained only mediocre wave-riding skills, I did develop a deep respect for the ocean. This led me to taking rescue diving and maritime search and rescue training. This aligned with my later academic interests, insofar as I specialised in European Defence and Security policy at the London School of Economics. I realised that while the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is making European waters the deadliest in the world, the European response has been to not focus on rescuing people in distress. Instead, it is to view the problem through the prism of criminal networks, anti-smuggling efforts and the enforcement of security policies against asylum seekers.

We’ve become so polarised on the topic of legitimate migration in Europe, we fail to act on what we all agree upon: nobody deserves to be abandoned to drown. And so, to the slight extent I could, I felt I understood the policy context and had the practical training to lend a hand. Which is what I did in 2017 as part of the civilian rescue efforts of the North Aegean Sea between Greece and Tukey, one of the primary points of transit into Europe at that time.


UAI: What are your most poignant memories of your time volunteering with refugees?

SB: The most poignant memory from my year coordinating search and rescue wasn’t at sea. It was that people in search and rescue were being thanked. Being thanked by asylum seekers, incredulous that one might ask their opinion on some banal issue. Being thanked by European citizens for the work done. I’m not trying to be facetious. This is one of the most difficult memories. It should not be incredible to treat someone with the respect of valuing their opinion, it is not praiseworthy to distribute blankets and water (which is all we often did). It is the most normal thing to help someone in distress.


UAI: What is your perspective on the ways the situation for refugees has changed in Europe in the past years? Given your experience to-date, and the extent of anti-migrant sentiment in Europe and elsewhere, is there any room for optimism for people concerned about the current situation?

SB: I want to be very clear, the EU response foremostly views people in dinghies escaping conflict as a threat to security, not as a humanitarian tragedy which must activate human rights obligations.

As such, the EU response creates gaps in life-saving activities, through which asylum seekers too easily fall. At the same time, civilian humanitarian organisations that try to fill this gap are cast as complicit in criminal activity – and are thus prosecuted or face non-judicial disruption. Research I have helped compile shows at least 171 individuals have been prosecuted since 2016 in over 13 European states.

This topic is personal for me as I have spent over 100 days in prison and still could face 25 years behind bars, for what Human Rights Watch said was ‘the criminalisation of saving lives’.

These prosecutions happen because of our fear-driven and polarised politics which demonise the most vulnerable. Too often you can hear the claim that we must secure our borders in defence of “European values” of peace and justice. The irony of course is that when we criminalise help and let people drown in our oceans, we have already lost the values of peace and justice.

We must reject racism and misinformation, but we must also reach out to those who may be swayed by it. Even in a polarised world, it doesn’t matter if you’re on the right or the left, we should be able to agree that nobody should be abandoned to die.


UAI: What do you think the main effects of the criminalization of solidarity and sea rescue with refugees are? Has the tactic been successful?

SB: The main effect is the ‘chill factor’. The costly and lengthy prosecutions that rescuers face disincentivise humanitarian action, thereby gutting the few rescue operations in place. The underlying logic for this is known as the pull factor, namely that  the more asylum seekers are rescued in a body of water, the more smuggling happening in that water. Therefore, the logic goes, rescue missions must be stopped. It is a questionable argument – the worse we can make the conditions for seeking asylum, the fewer people will do so, the better this is – this is the logic of institutions like FRONTEX.

The problem of course is that it is not borne out by the available data. There is no proven correlation, positive nor negative, between rescue and movement. As Médecins Sans Frontières’ research reveals, there is evidence that rape and torture experienced by asylum seekers in the Libyan war is what pushes people into the sea, whether medical services are waiting or not.

Ironically, the policy aimed at ending smuggling only produces the demand for smuggling; as such it isn’t internally coherent. In the current system, it is illegal to be in Europe without the necessary documentation; however, one has to be in Europe in order to make an asylum or protection demand with a European country. Therefore, this must mean that the securitisation policy enables criminal networks. “When driven from their homes, asylum seekers must use false papers or seek the services of a smuggler” noted Shalini Ray (Ray, 2017) as there are no ‘legal’ ways to become an asylum seeker for the vast majority of people.


UAI: What are your thoughts on the recent EU policies on migration and asylum, including the New Migration Pact?

SB: My view is that asylum policies in the Med have not improved; key issues remain.

International Maritime Laws that concern responding to vessels in distress are yet to be fully observed. Devastating relationships that the EU has with third countries, such as Libya, continue. Research repeatedly vindicates what is intuitive: raging civil wars cannot be assigned the label of “safe third country” to obviate the principle of non-refoulment, namely that no one should be returned to an unsafe country.

Most concerning, however, is that this isn’t merely incidental, but concerted EU strategy. As indicated by Masood at Queen Mary University in London (to be published), the recent EU Migration Pact 2020 might be very vague, but to the extent that any policy decisions can be discerned they are focused on securitisation of the external border. It is devoid of a commitment to the rights of migrants. It only makes scant reference to the importance of rescue. Third country relationships are not re-examined. The aim seems to be to limit migration whatever the cost to asylum seekers. In sum, short-sightedness. All this contrasts with the Global Compact on Migration 2018, which the EU member states signed up to. This Compact stressed the need for sustainable long-term thinking. EU migration policy, such as it is, is devoid of this thinking.


UAI: In what ways have you been able to stay involved since leaving Greece in 2018?

SB: Hardly at all in any direct sense. The civilian rescue efforts on the southern shoreline of Lesvos are non-existent now. However, I’ve come to realise that search and rescue can only address the symptoms of a deeper problem. By the time you have extended a hand to someone in distress in the Med, it is in some sense too late. The asylum and immigration system more broadly must be the prophylactic. I have advocated for more benign policies toward humanitarian action in the EU Commission and Parliament, as well as with member states. However, I have also contributed to campaigns such as VoteEuropa, that aim to increase electoral participation. Whether one agrees with my views or not, it is important to make sure representatives capture the concerns of the European people.


UAI: And, finally, what are your plans for the future?

SB: The short answer: staying out of prison.

Beyond weathering the limbo of this ongoing case, I am fortunate to be able to formalise my legal training in law. I am training to become a lawyer as I was inspired by the tireless work being done by legal researchers and practitioners who work to ensure that individuals’ rights are respected and who attempt to bind EU policymakers to their legal duties.


UAI: Thanks a lot for your time, Seán. We wish you all the best in your law studies and most importantly of course, that you will be freed of all criminal accusations against you soon.


Interview conducted in December 2020
Illustration of Seán by artist ©Ahlam Cnvschq

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