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World

Greece Cracks Down On Volunteers Aiding Migrants

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On the Greek island of Lesbos, volunteers have been doing whatever they possibly can to help migrants. They hand out food and blankets. Sometimes volunteers will jump into the sea to save asylum-seekers who are drowning. So far, Greek authorities have let these scenes play out. But that might be changing now, as Joanna Kakissis reports.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: There are at least 80 NGOs and thousands of volunteers helping refugees on Lesbos. Some, like Swedish volunteer Asa Swee just show up. I first met her as she and two friends drove on a muddy road in a rented Volkswagen van. They're heading to meet Syrians and Afghans who had just reached the European Union by landing on a Lesbos beach.

ASA SWEE: It's just the deprivation and happiness. And they come and they have - they have literally nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Volunteers have stepped in to help overwhelmed Greek authorities feed, clothe and even rescue migrants. For months, the Greek police and coast guard let the volunteers to themselves. But now they're requiring registration and asking for IDs. Swee says the mood has changed. She spoke by Skype from Stockholm.

SWEE: Of course, we saw it was noticeably much more volunteers, of course, which means, of course, more people can make more problems.

KAKISSIS: Problems like getting in the way of official rescue operations. But Swee says volunteers like her friend Salam Aldeen of Denmark are careful to tell Greek authorities just what they're doing.

SWEE: And I mean, they have been cooperating with the coast guard from day one.

KAKISSIS: So she was shocked to learn that the coast guard arrested Aldeen and four other volunteers - a fellow Dane and three Spanish lifeguards. They were arrested at sea and accused of directing a migrant boat to Greece, essentially assisting a smuggling operation. Aldeen spoke by phone from Lesbos and says that's not true.

SALAM ALDEEN: The problem is there is no boat. Nobody found a boat. We didn't go to Turkiya, and we didn't even go close to Turkiya side.

KAKISSIS: Aldeen's nonprofit is called Team Humanity. He patrolled Greek waters and communicated with other volunteers via smartphone. He recalls a the port authority officer asking him to help when he told her a boat with migrants was sinking.

ALDEEN: Do whatever you can to save the people's lives. And I told her thank you, took all the women, the children and the guy who didn't have a leg and some other men who were sick and I put them in my boat.

KAKISSIS: And just last week, he was patrolling with professional lifeguards from Seville, Spain. His cellphone rang. He heard shouting in Arabic.

ALDEEN: They were screaming. They were saying help, please. We're sinking, help. We heard babies screaming. We - children, everybody.

KAKISSIS: The people on the boat had no idea where they were. Aldeen speaks Arabic. His father is Iraqi, and he's given out his number to migrants he's met on Lesbos. Perhaps, he says, someone passed it on. Aldeen gave the people on the sinking boat an international emergency number, which brought Turkish coast guard to rescue them. Not long after, he says, his group was arrested by the Greeks. The Greek coast guard declined to comment on the case since it's still pending.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

KAKISSIS: Volunteers on Lesbos protested this weekend after Aldeen and the other four were jailed. They're free for now, but could still be formally charged. And Aldeen's boat has been seized, but he says he will still help, even if he gets in trouble.

ALDEEN: If I see right now a child in the water is drowning, I don't care about nothing. I will go in and help them.

KAKISSIS: Aldeen says he hopes his arrest won't deter others from volunteering here. And Greece still desperately needs help. More than 23,000 asylum-seekers have arrived here so far - this month. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.