Europe's offensive against people helping refugees

Three years ago, EU leaders praised its citizens for their efforts to welcome refugees. Why are they now criminalising those who show solidarity?


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Refugees welcome grafitti

Duncan C/Flickr

About three years ago, on 31 October 2014, EU pressure on Italy forced the end of one the EU’s most successful humanitarian missions, ‘Mare Nostrum’, a search-and-rescue operation that brought 130,000 refugees safely to Europe’s shores in just one year.

After this decision, the death toll mounted in the wake of this decision, including 1,200 victims at sea five months later.

NGOs stepped into the breach, launching their own rescue missions in a desperate attempt to save lives. Their efforts were part of a wave of compassion across Europe that year, as people organised convoys to refugee reception centres, warmly greeted arrivals at German train stations and lined highways to provide food and water to those making the arduous trek from war-torn regions of Syria and elsewhere.

As European politicians retreated from their humanitarian obligations, its citizens demonstrated Europe’s compassion, solidarity and commitment to the Geneva Conventions.

In his first State of the European Union address, in 2015, EU Commission President Juncker had even praised the volunteers as representative of the kind of ‘Europe I want to live in’.

Yet just a few years later, the Union looks very different, and Juncker is silent as those very same activists are now being treated as criminals rather than heroes.

To cite just a few recent cases, in February 2017, Cedric Herrou, a shepherd from the Roya Valley, in southeast France, was condemned to an eight-month suspended prison sentence and a €3,000 fine ($3,500) for providing shelter to homeless migrants. In Denmark, Lisbeth Zornig Andersen was fined in 2016 for opening her house to refugee families with nowhere to live. In February 2017, on the border between Greece and Macedonia more than 60 volunteers from Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Britain, and the Czech Republic faced armed police harassment and intimidation, including threats of arrest and arbitrary house searches.

These cases are the tip of a particularly unpleasant iceberg that should shame Europe’s leaders.

It is important to stress that these cases are both a product and violation of EU law. The 2002 Directive on the facilitation of illegal entry and residence, aimed at organized people traffickers, contains a non-binding exemption to ensure that humanitarian activities are excluded from its scope.

Some 15 years later, however, two-thirds of EU member states now apply the law but not the exemption, paving the way for the widespread criminalisation of refugee solidarity and activism. These laws are supplemented by a raft of administrative procedures that hinder NGO operations or further restrict the scope for refugee assistance. In the Netherlands, providing shelter to an undocumented migrant and failing to report the person can lead to a 3,350 euros fine and six months in prison. Cyprus forbids lawyers to do any pro-bono work at all, which also restricts access to legal assistance for asylum procedure. Croatia moved recently to take further steps to criminalize aiding ‘illegal’ migrants.

This attack on human rights defenders and disregard for the EU’s international humanitarian law and human rights obligations is not an aberration: it is a product of EU policy and practice. The EU’s Border and Coastguard Agency (ECBG, formally known as Frontex) repeatedly smeared NGO search-and-rescue boats by implying their collusion with traffickers and smugglers – despite an Italian Senate Committee enquiry found no evidence no such links in April 2017. These smears prefaced a wider attack on those NGOs operating in the Mediterranean by an unholy alliance of state agencies and far right activists.

Search-and-rescue missions, conducted by household names like Medicins Sans Frontieres and Save the Children as well as new organisations that emerged in response to the humanitarian crisis, have been relentlessly targeted.

In Greece, three Spanish firemen on a rescue mission for the Proem-Aid association, were arrested at sea and detained for 60 hours before being bailed on charges of human trafficking. In Italy, undercover intelligence agents have allegedly infiltrated NGOs and operated covertly on search-and-rescue boats. Several vessels have been now been seized pending further investigations. Coupled with a ‘voluntary’ Code of Conduct which all but ended the capacity for the NGOs to operate independently, these actions have had the desired effect of stopping the rescue missions altogether.

The manufactured narrative around NGOs and trafficking has also been seized upon by populists and fascists, such as the crowd-funded ‘Defend Europe’ boat launched in July with the aim of actively disrupting the humanitarian NGOs. While they abandoned their mission because of disruption by antifascists, they then claimed success by arguing that that the Italian and Libyan governments had done the job for them: ‘Only two months ago, many NGOs sailed in front of the Libyan coasts, like cabs waiting for customers. Today, there is only one,’ the group said in a statement. The unleashing of these forces has led to much wider attacks on Italian NGOs that are reminiscent of the scapegoating and demonization of George Soros in Hungary.

The criminalisation of refugee solidarity is the latest salvo in an EU policy long predicated on stopping refugees reaching in EU states at any cost, be that by letting them drown, confining them to camps in Turkey, or allegedly paying Libyan militiamen to prevent their departure.

By targeting activists who support refugees, authorities remove witnesses of what is happening, and dissuade other European citizens that more humane policies are possible. This dismembering of Europe’s values and principles has turned the Mediterranean into a mass grave in the name of creating a ‘deterrent’ effect.

Three years ago, Europe’s citizens stepped in where its leaders failed – showing the compassion and solidarity upon which the EU is founded. It is time for Europe’s politicians to show the same courage and end a duplicitous policy capable only of piling misery of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Transnational Institute will explore these issues further in a forthcoming paper on criminalisation of solidarity with refugees.

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