An Egyptian fisherman who was facing a 4760-year sentence in a Greek prison has been sentenced to centuries in jail.
H. Elfallah was found guilty this week of ‘smuggling’ nearly 500 people from Libya to Greece in November 2022 — including 336 men, 10 women, 128 boys and nine girls — has ended up with a ‘lesser’ sentence of 280 years instead.
Activist groups have condemned the court’s decision, saying that the fisherman — who was one of the migrants aboard the ship but was also steering the vessel — is being used as a scapegoat by Greek authorities.
The 45-year-old Egyptian fisherman was found aboard the vessel when it arrived in the Crete port of Paleochora at the end of November 2022.
The boat, which had lost control in strong winds near the coast, sent a distress signal to the Greek Coast Guard, which brought the vessel ashore and rescued the people on board.
The dilapidated boat had set sail from Libya with the goal of reaching Italy’s shores, and the smuggled migrants on board were mostly from Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan and Palestine.
When Greek authorities boarded the boat they immediately arrested seven migrants who had tried to steer the vessel to safety, including Elfallah and his 15-year-old son, according to the human rights NGO borderline-europe.
The charity says Elfallah was not responsible for smuggling the nearly 500 migrants on board the ship, and claim he didn’t want to take over the steering, but was forced to by the dire circumstances of the voyage.
“Elfallah could not afford the cost of several thousand euros for the trip for himself and his son,” the NGO writes. “In exchange for a cheaper price, he and his son agreed to do some chores – something that is very common on the flight route to Europe.”
The Egyptian and his son had reportedly wanted to reunite with another son who is already living in the UK.
As European borders have become increasingly militarised in recent years, and the criminalisation of illegal migration has only been exacerbated, smugglers now normally leave migrants to travel on their own to the other side of the Mediterranean or the Aegean -– often assigning the task of steering the boats to their “clients.”
“It should go without saying that a boat needs to be piloted by someone, especially a boat of this size,” borderline-europe writes in a report published last week.
“A boat of this size actually needs several people to take care of navigation, steering and mechanics. It is common that, if there are people in the group who have at least some seafaring experience, they take over the steering duties – which only makes sense and should be in the interest of everyone who claims to have the welfare of the people on board in mind”.
According to the organisation, Elfallah got “caught in the crosshairs” of European authorities seeking to hold someone responsible for the migrant boats still reaching the continent’s shores despite widespread efforts to halt these journeys at their starting point.
The people helping to make migrants’ journeys safer aboard the ships transporting them “are arrested and treated like criminals, they are punished to deter others, they are used as scapegoats to deflect attention from the responsibility that Europe bears with its closed-borders policy that forces people to get on these boats and make these journeys in the first place,” the NGO writes.
Elfallah was charged with “unauthorised entry” and “unauthorised transport of 476 third-country nationals into Greek territory,” with the aggravating circumstances of “endangering the lives of the passengers,” “acting for profit” and “belonging to a criminal organisation”.
As per Article 30 of the Greek Migration Law, the fisherman could have gotten a 10 years sentence for each person he transported – giving him a total sentence of 4760 years.
But the court on Monday decided on 280 years ‘only’, taking into account “his reasons”.