Norwegian accused by Greece of smuggling: ‘I’ve perhaps made people angry’

Tommy Olsen, who has long helped vulnerable people having rushed to Greece at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, faces 20 years in jail on smuggling allegations.

Tommy Olsen
Tommy Olsen, a 51-year-old Norwegian volunteer, has spent years volunteering his time to assist refugees and migrants [Courtesy: Adam Rosser]

Athens, Greece – Towards the end of May, the east Aegean island of Kos issued an arrest warrant for Tommy Olsen.

It will soon reach authorities in the town of Tromso, in the Norwegian Arctic, where the 51-year-old nursery teacher lives.

Olsen’s lawyers have already alerted local police “just to avert some over-eager policemen from showing up at my door early in the morning”, as Olsen put it.

“In the beginning, I will be taken in for questioning and the judge will decide if I will be extradited,” he told Al Jazeera. “The evidence we have seen so far is not even slim. I would say nonexistent.”

The Kos prosecutor accuses Olsen of being part of a criminal organisation that helped undocumented refugees and migrants cross from Turkey to Greece and gave them places to stay.

If convicted, he could face at least 20 years in jail, and this is only one of five investigations targeting Olsen. There is a second on Kos and three more on the nearby island of Lesbos.

Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders, called the warrant “disturbing news” on social media.

A history of helping

Olsen’s involvement with refugees began in 2015, when he flew to Lesbos as a volunteer to help manage the large numbers of arrivals.

Volunteers helped asylum seekers onshore and even conducted search and rescue operations at sea to help overwhelmed Greek authorities.

Olsen started an information exchange. Volunteers told him what was going on in their area in return for a daily bulletin that told them what was happening everywhere else.

“It was a challenge to know where to put your resources because … organisations weren’t very keen on sharing,” said Olsen.

The bulletin developed a network of hundreds of people, including doctors, asylum lawyers, the police, the coastguard, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), and social workers.

Since some of Olsen’s sources were official, he was careful not to print information that would betray them, but he made sure it got to the right people discreetly.

In 2017, the bulletin went public as Aegean Boat Report, a comprehensive monitor of arrivals and flows across the five east Aegean islands that had reception and identification centres.

To keep it running, Olsen travelled to Greece four or five times a year, staying up to six weeks at a time. He used up his holidays, then took vacation without pay. In the interim, his network kept feeding him news in Tromso.

“I thought the local Greek authorities – police, coastguard on the islands – were doing a brilliant job,” Olsen said. “I was very happy with the cooperation.”

Things fall apart

Then, everything went sour.

“I think it started with the shift of the government,” Olsen said, referring to the July 2019 election that brought the conservative New Democracy to power after five years of rule by Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left.

“We started to get a different vibe. Less cooperation, more questions, random searches of cars, random searches of apartments.”

More than 30,000 asylum seekers were then overflowing around camps on the islands, and New Democracy had promised to install order.

The government suspected some aid groups of smuggling operations. It audited their finances and background-checked their members.

In February 2020, Turkey declared it was pulling out of a 2016 agreement with the European Union to restrain crossings by undocumented people and allowed thousands to attempt to storm the Greek land border at the Evros River. Others were encouraged to cross by boat.

Greece’s reaction was to declare a hard no-admissions policy.

Aid groups have said this policy was never lifted and resulted in pushbacks – refusing entry to those who might have sought international protection – an illegal practice under the Geneva Convention of 1951, to which Greece is a signatory.

Greece regularly denies allegations of pushback, insisting its policy is firm but fair.

But Olsen has posted videos and photographs of the Greek coastguard pushing refugee-filled dinghies away. He believes one such incident, in 2021, which aired on international media, gave the authorities on Kos great offence.

“It painted a very bad picture of their behaviour. They were screaming, calling [the refugees] names, even grabbing their b****, telling them to p*** off and go back where they came from,” said Olsen. “This is, I think, what started the case against me on Kos.”

He added, “I have perhaps made some people angry.”

Al Jazeera recently reported on the fallout following a video Olsen’s organisation posted on social media last year. After being dismissed as fake news by the Greek mayor of Kos, Frontex confirmed the authenticity of the footage which showed refugees being abused by masked men in a van on the island.

‘The authorities’ aim was to chase NGOs away’

Aegean Boat Report is not the only organisation independently monitoring refugee flows to Europe.

On April 29, Alarmphone, a German NGO which also provides a hotline for refugees in distress at sea, posted a public alert that 46 refugees needed rescuing off Lesbos.

The Greek coastguard at the time told Al Jazeera it was unaware of any such incident, and posted no press releases. Alarmphone made no accusations of pushbacks.

Olsen believes it is his public denunciation of pushbacks, his cooperation with the media, and his willingness to provide evidence for indictments against Greece at the European Court of Human Rights that have led Greek authorities to target him.

“[Alarmphone volunteers] are doing a brilliant job. But they are not very public. They don’t attack, they don’t reveal in the manner I do, they don’t cooperate with newspapers. At the moment, I have at least four Frontex investigations ongoing based on my information,” he told Al Jazeera.

Olsen’s is far from being the only indictment of a volunteer organisation.

In September 2018, prosecutors on Lesbos arrested all 30 members of Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a Greek search-and-rescue NGO which also employed non-Greeks.

Six years later, the most serious charges against ERCI – including espionage and smuggling – have not yet been brought to trial. The same is true of other indicted SAR groups, like Mare Liberum, a German NGO.

Trying the charges would certainly result in acquittal, said Zacharias Kesses, the lawyer who represents Olsen, ERCI, Mare Liberum and others facing similar charges.

The espionage charge against ERCI, for example, is based on their hearing coastguard conversations by tuning in to Channel 16.

“Channel 16 is the Mayday channel,” said Kesses. “Any mariner may listen. It has taken courts eight years to determine that.”

Keeping the charges like a Damoclean sword over these groups’ heads without having to prove its case was the government’s plan, Kesses told Al Jazeera.

“The authorities’ aim was to chase NGOs away from the field … The point is to make it impossible for civil society to record what goes on at the border.”

It’s working. There are no non-state maritime monitors left in the Aegean, and Olsen, who 18 months ago quit his day job and devoted himself to ABR full-time, could lose his sponsorships and be forced to suspend the service.

“I have to be totally honest towards the people I am seeking support from,” said Olsen. “No board, no organisation, will stand with anyone suspected of anything.”

Greece’s Ministry of Migration and Asylum declined to comment for this article.

Asked whether Europe could have allowed uncontrolled migration, Olsen said, “[Europeans] had to react, but when you remove the leverage [of third countries] by removing the fundamental rights of the people, by breaking your own laws, you’re on the wrong path.”

His lawyer simply said, “I feel ashamed of these cases.”

Source: Al Jazeera