Facing 10 years in prison for an act of desperation

A year and a half ago, a young pregnant woman from Afghanistan, living at the Mavrovouni camp on Lesvos, attempted suicide by setting fire to her tent. On June 22, 2022, she stands trial, accused of arson with intent.
June 21, 2022
Facing 10 years in prison for an act of desperation
A year and a half ago, a young pregnant woman from Afghanistan, living at the Mavrovouni camp on Lesvos, attempted suicide by setting fire to her tent. On June 22, 2022, she stands trial, accused of arson with intent.
June 21, 2022
Visualization: Spoovio
Proof-read: Gigi Papoulias

Nasrin didn’t want to give birth inside the camp. After the family was told their transfer to Germany had been accepted, she was hoping she’d be able to travel before giving birth. She was 27 years old, pregnant with her fourth child, and desperate to leave the camp. But weeks passed and while other residents departed for Germany, the family’s transfer was postponed again and again.

This was the beginning of Solomon’s report, published in March 2021, about the case of the young pregnant woman from Afghanistan, who we’ll call Nasrin.

Having lived for almost a year and a half at the refugee camps on Lesvos, and seeing her transfer to Germany constantly postponed, on the morning of February 22, 2021, Nasrin did something that UNHCR described as “primarily an act of desperation” and “a cry for help”: she attempted suicide by setting fire to her tent.

The fire was quickly extinguished and she survived with injuries and burns. After months of waiting, a hospital stay and childbirth, the family finally relocated to Germany where they are now rebuilding their lives.

However, on June 22, 2022, Nasrin’s trial begins at a court in Mytilene for the offense of arson with intent to endanger life and damage property.

If convicted, she faces up to ten years imprisonment.

“A cry for help”

This was the second pregnancy that Nasrin had to go through at the refugee camps of Lesvos.

In his statement to the fire brigade, her husband reported that life at Mavrovouni, a “temporary” camp built on a shooting range after Moria was destroyed (and still the island’s only facility), was very difficult for his heavily pregnant wife.

He had searched for an apartment in Mytilene but to no avail.

In addition to their exposure to lead with potentially very harmful effects, as well as to strong winds, the nearly 7,000 residents of Mavrovouni had to cope with problematic living conditions, no heating and hot water, with limited access to electricity, in summer tents that flooded at the first rain and subsequent rains.

After Moria’s destruction, Germany announced that it would accept around 1,500 refugees but, by then, it had received only a third. And Nasrin, whose family’s transfer had been approved, couldn’t wait to leave Mavrovouni.

Although she is accused of endangering other residents, the truth is that Nasrin’s actions signal her intention to cause harm only to herself.

She committed the act while her husband and son were away, and only after she removed both her daughters from the scene and left them with neighbors. She was in the tent alone, used a lighter to set the tent fabric on fire, and lay down inside the tent.

The threat to the other asylum seekers is rather difficult to establish, also because of the following fact: although the fire brigade headquarters is located a few hundred metres from the camp, the fire brigade report shows that the neighbors were able to immediately put out the fire with bottles of water, before the firemen arrived.

“Attempted suicide is not punishable”

“The criminalization of an act of desperation should be of particular concern to us, not only as legal advocates but also as citizens,” defense attorney Efi Doussi, from HIAS Greece, the organization that has taken on Nasrin’s case, told Solomon.

“Unfortunately, this case is an example of the criminal mechanism being erroneously activated against a self-inflicted crime – attempted suicide – which, under our criminal law, is not a punishable offense,” she added.

Vassilis Kerasiotis, also a defense attorney from HIAS Greece, told Solomon that during the pre-trial investigation stage, Nasrin was accepted into the refugee relocation program and able to travel to Germany.

“We, therefore, believe that it will also be shown at the hearing that the judiciary will rise to the occasion and accept that this act does not fall under criminal law.”

A mental health emergency

According to Ms.Doussi, Nasrin’s case “obscures the responsibility of the state to act proactively and ensure decent living conditions for people seeking international protection in Greece, the lack of which leads them to despair to the point of wanting to end their lives.”

Speaking to the fire brigade who visited her at the hospital to take her statement, Nasrin said she had been having suicidal thoughts for two months before finally taking action.

But, despite their vulnerability, asylum seekers’ access to mental health services is limited, and such services are mainly provided by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

Médecins Sans Frontières had reported that, in Mavrovouni camp, refugees were experiencing a mental health emergency.

Thalia Portokalogou, psychologist and director of mental health services at Melissa Network, told Solomon that “a self-destructive act like this, is a clear indication of hopelessness derived from a desperateness which is destructive and is what the majority of refugees experience in their daily lives.”

“This incident is not the ‘problem’ itself but the symptom of a deeply pathological and dysfunctional condition in the system,” she added. “As long as we continue to only deal with the symptom and not look for the source of the problem, we will move away from the solution.”

If Nasrin is convicted, however, it will be an unprecedented development.

To date, there is still no known case in Europe of an asylum seeker who attempted to end his or her life, and was convicted for causing danger to others or public property through this action.

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