Like many others, Sara Mardini fled her home in Syria as the civil war raged, but the extraordinary circumstances of her escape would bring her and her family to international attention. In 2015, she and her younger sister, Yusra, helped to save the lives of 18 others by pulling their sinking boat for three-and-a-half hours on a perilous crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Yusra would go on to swim for the Refugee Olympic Team at the Olympic games and Sara, after settling in Germany, returned to Lesbos to provide humanitarian aid to others arriving on the shores of Europe in the most desperate situations.
Their inspiring story of survival, which generated headlines around the world calling the sisters heroes, was even adapted into a Netflix film, The Swimmers, released last year. What that feel-good movie doesn’t show, however, is the very real legal battle that has consumed Sara’s life for the past five years—a high-profile example of what human rights organizations say is an alarming trend of humanitarians who help refugees being punished and criminalized for their actions.
Sara, now 27, was arrested in Greece in 2018 and held in pretrial detention for 107 days in a high-security jail in Athens. Later, she and other charity workers were charged with a slew of crimes including espionage, money laundering, and being members of a criminal organization. Amnesty International described the allegations “unfair and baseless” and said the prosecution was designed “to dissuade others from showing solidarity with refugees and migrants.”
Undaunted by the prospect of a possible 25-year sentence, Sara has continued to conduct humanitarian work in Europe and advocate for the rights of refugees. A new documentary, Long Distance Swimmer: Sara Mardini, details the purgatory in which she has been stuck as the case continues to drag on.
“The point was to keep this kind of limbo there because that’s what they needed to instill fear in other humanitarians and get their point across,” the film’s director, Charly Wai Feldman, tells The Daily Beast of Greek authorities. Over the course of four-and-a-half years documenting Sara’s anxious wait for the trial, Feldman saw close up the dire consequences which refugee activists risk by helping others. “This kind of work takes a huge toll,” Feldman says. “Even though it consumes your life, you can’t make a living doing it.”
Sara made her journey to Greece at the height of the European refugee crisis in 2015; that year alone, the UN’s refugee agency estimates that over 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean and almost 3,800 died or were lost at sea.
In the eight years since, the horrific scenes of drownings on the borders of Europe have continued unabated. Just last week, a fishing vessel which may have been carrying as many as 700 people capsized and sank off the coast of Greece while en route from Libya to Italy. As of Tuesday, at least 82 people have been confirmed dead—alone making it the deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean in 2023—while 104 were rescued. Hundreds more remain unaccounted for amid harrowing reports of large numbers of women and children believed to have been in the hold at the bottom of the ship.
“It’s soul destroying,” Feldman says. “I’ve been to conferences where I listen to people who man vessels in the Mediterranean and they talk about the kind of ways they’re discouraged from helping people at sea.” These might be commercial vessels held up in months of bureaucracy, Feldman says, after helping a refugee vessel. She says “intimidation, red tape, threats of prison” and other forms of discouragement are used to pressure ships from providing aid to those who need it the most. “What’s left is an atmosphere of fear,” Feldman adds.
“You can imagine them crying for help, crying for help, crying for help, and everyone’s just turning a blind eye,” Feldman says. “It’s a terrible way to go. And on the borders of Europe. I feel like for some reason because of the narrative Europe presents to the world, it should be held to that standard and they aren’t right now.”
Last month, the New York Times published footage from an aid worker purportedly showing migrants on Lesbos in April being transferred from a Greek Coast Guard vessel into an inflatable raft and then abandoned in the Aegean Sea, allegedly in violation of local, EU, and international law. In 2022, the British government abandoned a so-called “pushback policy”—designed to force migrant vessels crossing the English Channel to return to France—days before the policy was set to be challenged in court.
Across Europe, politicians advocating for a hardline on illegal immigration have continued to remain popular. Viktor Orbán, the staunchly anti-immigration prime minister of Hungary, won a fourth successive term last year. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni secured her electoral victory in October calling for a naval blockade to stop migrants reaching Italy from Africa. France’s hard-right Marine Le Pen ultimately lost out to Emmanuel Macron in last year’s elections, but her migrant-hostile National Rally party surged to become the single largest opposition party in the National Assembly.
Against rising enmity, refugee rights activists face a daunting political—and personal—struggle. “I think she’s not feeling great about the state of things,” Feldman says of Sara. “At least the time we’ve sort of done these Q&As around the film, she was just like: ‘It’s really depressing.’” Sara is not asking people to go to the Mediterranean and save people, Feldman says. Instead, her message is for more kindness and empathy. “‘Vote because I can’t,’ is something she says often, ‘And because they can’t.’”
Seán Binder, who was also arrested, imprisoned, and accused along with Sara in 2018 in relation to his humanitarian efforts in Lesbos, also figures in Feldman’s film. Like Sara, his life has been severely affected by the years of criminal proceedings against him in Greece. “He’s been told by the best think tanks who want to hire him: ‘We can’t risk hiring you in case you get a criminal record,’” Feldman says. “He then went to law school and was meant to do his bar, and he’s been advised not to go and do his bar examination in case they say: ‘Well, you might have a criminal record.’”
In the documentary, Sara explains that authorities accused her and others of being spies “because our team in Greece communicated with encrypted software like WhatsApp.” The money laundering allegations relate to fundraisers for projects in refugee camps, Sara says, while accusations of being migrant smugglers were made because “we were providing medical care, water bottles, and blankets on Lesbos’ shorelines.” Police have previously said an investigation was launched because Sara and Seán were found to be traveling in a European Response Center International (ERCI) vehicle which supposedly had fake license plates.
While making the film, Feldman says, she “didn’t expect that mental health would become such a big part of it.” But unavoidably, the burden of tireless activism coupled with the threat of jail and even widespread hostility toward your cause is fatiguing. “I think that’s a big part of the story that isn’t told, that isn’t seen if you’re watching her speeches or watch the Netflix film The Swimmers,” Feldman says of Sara.
In January, a misdemeanor case against Sara and Seán was dismissed by a Greek court on account of procedural flaws in the case following years of postponements. The relief for the defendants was short-lived, however, because a prosecutor appealed the ruling to Greece’s Supreme Court last month. “That’s quite shocking, it’s very unusual behavior,” Feldman says. “The lawyers have called this a manhunt.”
If the appeal succeeds, their misdemeanor trial could start afresh. They also remain under investigation for what Amnesty described as “unfounded felony charges carrying up to 20 years in prison.” They’re not alone. Hundreds of others across Europe face punishment for their attempts at showing help or solidarity with refugees, “including pensioners, mountain guides, priests, young activists, boat captains and more,” according to Amnesty.
“This is horrible,” Feldman says. “It’s not the world we want to live in. It’s not the world I want to raise my children in.”