IMMIGRATION CRISIS

Arrested in Greece: Spanish activists who hid eight refugees in caravan

Pair could face people-smuggling charges over protest against Europe’s immigration policies

Two left-wing activists have been arrested in the Greek port city of Igoumenitsa after they were discovered attempting to bring eight refugees to Spain by hiding them in the back of a caravan. Mikel Zuloaga and Begoña Huarte, both members of the Plataforma Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak (Refugees Welcome) group based in the Basque Country, in northern Spain, were detained on Wednesday when they tried to board an Italy-bound ferry with the refugees in the back of their vehicle.

Mikel Zuloaga and Begoña Huarte.
Mikel Zuloaga and Begoña Huarte.Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak

The Refugees Welcome group said the pair – both well known in activist circles – had been arrested during a protest carried out “in solidarity [with refugees] and as a way of denouncing European migration policies while defending human rights.”

The group said the refugees who were to be taken out of Greece included a transsexual woman fleeing Pakistan and a total of seven young people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Six of the eight refugees, including the transsexual woman, were released early on Wednesday while two others had applied for asylum, the group said.

In a video, activist Mikel Zuloaga described the protest as an act of civil disobedience

Zuloaga and Huarte now face prison time in Greece if they are charged with people smuggling and are expected to appear in court on Friday. “They are receiving assistance from Greek lawyers who are specialists in human rights,” said Anabel Sanz, spokesperson for Refugees Welcome. Those lawyers have refused to comment until the exact nature of the charges is known.

Sanz likened the case to that of a group of firefighters from Seville who were arrested on the Greek island of Lesbos in January after rescuing refugees at sea. They were released three days later after paying bail of €15,000.

Sanz said Refugees Welcome was in contact with regional authorities in Navarre and the Basque Country while Spain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was following the case closely.

In a video filmed before his arrest and posted on social media on Wednesday, Zuloaga claimed responsibility for the protest action, describing it as an act of “civil disobedience” funded by volunteers from a range of organizations.

Cristina García, a member of Refugees Welcome, said not all of the group’s volunteers had known of the plan to bring the refugees back to Spain in a caravan but said the group had assessed the risks and had been in contact with Greek lawyers before the protest action was carried out.

The activists face time in a Greek prison if they are charged with people smuggling

“In fact, they filmed the video to explain they were activists not people smugglers,” she added.

Zuloaga – who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2007 over links to the Basque terrorist group ETA but cleared two years later by Spain’s Supreme Court – visited Greece in July as a member of the Caravan to Greece collective. Members of that group visited refugee camps across Greece and protested outside the Spanish Embassy in Athens.

English version by George Mills.

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