By Peggy Gish
He bent his head down momentarily and then raised it to brace himself for the verdict and the sentence. “Guilty.” “Forty-four years in prison,” a staggering reality for a teenage refugee, who thought he would be released because of his age and background. All his dreams and hopes for his life, wiped away at the stroke of the judge’s pen. His only hope now is in the appeals process, which often results in greatly reducing the sentence.
We were stunned. After visiting him in the jail, the day before the trial, and hearing his agonizing story of his family fleeing death threats in their home country and desperately trying to reach a place where they could live in safety, I felt a deep pain and grief.
His crime: human smuggling. He had driven the small dinghy boat transporting 40 other refugees from Turkey to Lesvos Greece in order to pay for his family’s passage and was caught by the Greek coast guards.
For six hours in the courtroom, one man after another faced the judge. Some of the men were refugees, but most were young Turkish men who took the job in order to get out of a personal financial crisis, but are now sorry. Their lives are over. Our hearts bottomed-out. Prosecutors stridently insisted that they each get the maximum penalty for their crime, which by Greek law is a fine plus fifteen years in prison for each person in the boat, whose life they endangered. Some of the men got over a hundred year sentence, but the maximum that any will serve is twenty five. We saw defense lawyers pleading sincerely and compassionately for leniency for their clients. I felt repulsed, however, by the coldness of judge toward the accused and the harshness of Greek law. Our lawyer also felt shocked and told us she had never seen a judge in this court be so inflexible and harsh in her rulings as today.
No one in the courtroom supported the business of human smuggling of refugees—making immense profits by charging huge prices for transporting refugees in very dangerous conditions, usually crowding too many people in unsafe boats, often not giving them life jackets that actually work, or not putting enough fuel in the motor to reach the shore of the Greek island. It’s a horrendous crime against these vulnerable and desperate people. But the people being tried in this courtroom were not the people running these illegal businesses and getting rich. These were the young, desperate men they hired or bargained with to take the legal risk of driving the boats without understanding the potential consequences of their actions. And so the laws and prosecutions against human smuggling are not deterring this crime. They are not addressing the governmental regulations that push desperate people to choose illegal and unsafe ways of reaching a safe place to live.
One can choose to look at these men through the eyes of “law and order,” insisting on following the letter of the law, no matter how unjust the laws are, and just see that they must pay for their crimes. Or, one can choose to look deeper at the injustices that the system smoothes over and tries to hide, and at who is gaining from the law. We can choose to see the humanity of these men who are the victims of our global wars and intervention and seek to address the root causes of their illegal activity. We can provide safe and legal passage and repatriation for people fleeing violence, and dry up the human trafficking of refugees. And, even though it is not easy, we can choose to see the ways our own society contributes and gains from these root causes. The hardest task, though, is for our societies to find and see new, compassionate ways of living in our global world and ways of preventing these crises.
At times like this, words I grew up hearing come back to me, “He/she who has eyes, let them see.”