Asylum seeker father faces 10 years in Greek jail for son’s death

Athens, Greece – A 26-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan is facing up to 10 years in prison in Greece for the death of his five-year-old son, who drowned after boarding a dinghy from Turkey to Greece with his father on November 8, 2020.

Hafez, the pseudonym of a defendant who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, will stand trial on Wednesday, charged with endangering the life of his child.

Hafez spoke quietly as he remembered the fateful trip that led to the death of his son.

He described hugging his son tightly as the boat with 24 people on board hit rocks off the Greek island of Samos in the eastern Aegean and capsized.

The boy disappeared in the water and was later found by Greek authorities, washed up on the shores of Cape Prasso, a steep and treacherously rocky part of the island, sometimes referred to as “the Cape of Death”.

Hafez found it difficult to go into the details of that night but said that he came to Europe, as hundreds of thousands of others have done, seeking a better life for his child.

A cuddly toy is placed on the grave of a five-year boy from Afghanistan
A cuddly toy on the grave of a five-year boy from Afghanistan on the island of Samos [File: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP]

His asylum application had been rejected twice in Turkey and he faced deportation to Afghanistan.

“I just came here for my son’s future,” he said, recalling the numerous times his son asked him when he could go to school.

Hafez cannot understand why he is facing jail time for this tragic event that saw his son die.

“It’s not just me. There are many people who have lost their families, their sons, their wives [en route to Greece],” he said. “What can they prove? That the accident happened to us?”

Alan Kurdi

Hafez’s son is one of many children who died in the Aegean while seeking safety in Europe.

One of the most well-known cases was that of two-year-old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, who drowned after his boat capsized on the journey from Turkey to Greece, and whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015.

Kurdi would become a symbol of the refugee crisis when more than a million people arrived to claim asylum in Europe.

Dimitris Choulis, Hafez’s lawyer, said that as far as he knows, Hafez’s case is the first case of an asylum seeker being charged in Greece for the death of his child in a shipwreck.

Choulis told Al Jazeera that he believes the charges against his client have no merit.

“I believe he will be found innocent,” he said firmly.

An Afghan father watches television in his room, at the port of Vathy on the eastern Aegean island of Samos, Greece
Still devastated from losing his only child, Hafez has found himself charged with a felony count of child endangerment [File: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP]

The timeline of events that night in the Aegean is also in question. Choulis said it took authorities more than six hours to conduct a rescue operation that night.

Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian NGO that monitors asylum seeker arrivals in Greece and is often contacted by arrivals in distress, confirmed to Al Jazeera that they had called the port police on Samos at 12:06am on November 8 (21:06 GMT on November 7), 2020 to inform them of an arrival and that there were people missing.

According to Choulis, asylum seekers who made it onto the rocks from the shipwreck testified that they saw a boat patrolling the area which shone its lights on them but then left.

The Greek Coast Guard told media at the time it had initially responded to a distress call but had not found anybody.

At 6am (03:00 GMT), Hafez, who had been desperately searching for his son, encountered police officers and told them what happened.

By the time his son was found that morning, it was too late to save him. The boy’s body was recovered near that of a pregnant woman, who was unconscious but alive and gave birth days later in the island’s hospital.

The ordeal did not end there, Choulis remembers how Hafez was then taken in handcuffs to identify his son’s body.

The lawyer recalls waiting outside for the bereaved father after he had been to see his child’s body. Hafez was inconsolable, Choulis said.

“When they came [out] his handcuffs were off, [the police officers] were supporting him as he couldn’t walk,” said Choulis.

“I don’t think that he was ever OK after that.”

Another defendant

Choulis is also representing another asylum seeker, Hasan (another pseudonym), ,who will stand trial on the same day as Hafez, for being the driver of the boat that Hafez and his son were in.

Hasan, also from Afghanistan, is facing life imprisonment for the five-year-old’s death, on top of up to 230 years in prison for endangering the lives of 23 people excluding himself.

Hasan is one of a growing number of asylum seekers who have faced smuggling charges in Greece for being at the wheel of the boat, in what human rights groups and academics have said is an increasing trend to criminalise migration.

Hasan says he was forced by smugglers to steer the boat and had no other choice but to comply.

“This trial is part of a broader pattern of states criminalising those seeking safety from war and persecution, as well as individuals and organisations seeking to support them,” Dr Gemma Bird, senior lecturer of politics and international relations at the University of Liverpool in the UK, told Al Jazeera.

“Over recent years, we have seen similar things happening in Greece and Italy as well as a move towards violent responses of state actors on land and sea borders throughout Europe, which have repeatedly been shown to put people at risk,” she said.

On May 5, 2022, three asylum seekers from Syria, who were on board a boat which was capsized off the Greek island of Paros in December 2021, were convicted for “facilitating unauthorised entry” in Greece and collectively sentenced to 439 years in prison.

‘Tough but fair’

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has consistently defended his country’s approach to migration, denying reports of illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers at the borders and insisting that authorities follow the letter of the law.

Mitsotakis has said the country has a “tough but fair” immigration policy where human rights are fully respected.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, speaking about Hafez’s case to media at the time, said it was important that the circumstances of any deaths were thoroughly probed.

“If there is the loss of human life, it must be investigated whether some people, through negligence or deliberately, acted outside the limits of the law,” he said.

“The people who choose to get into boats which are unseaworthy, and are driven by people who have no experience of the sea, obviously put human lives at risk.”

Hafez still has no idea how to pick up the pieces of his life from that night.

“What’s happened to me is in my mind this time for a long time, I want to erase it, but I cannot,” he said.

Hafez will stand trial on Samos this week, the island where his son is buried in a graveyard alongside many others who perished seeking asylum in Greece.

“I thought that maybe here would be safe for my son, maybe I would build my son’s future here,” said Hafez slowly. “I’ve not been myself since then.”

A spokesperson from the Greek foreign ministry told Al Jazeera it could not comment on the trial.

“Cases under judicial investigation and court decisions, cannot be commented by the Greek authorities, since the judiciary is independent,” the ministry said.

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