How Solidarity with Migrants is being Criminalised

Mike Phipps reviews The shrinking space for solidarity with migrants and refugees: how the European Union and Member States target and criminalize defenders of the rights of people on the move, a new report from the Transnational Institute, by Yasha Maccanico, Ben Hayes, Samuel Kenny and Frank Barat

When Europe’s “refugee crisis” hit a few years ago, it triggered a wave of solidarity actions by both civil society organisations and ordinary citizens. People organised convoys to refugee reception centres and lined highways to provide food and water to those making the journey from Syria and elsewhere. Now those same activists are treated as criminals and humanitarian rescue missions are criminalised. A combination of tighter EU rules, the actions of national police and the menace of far right activists has created a wholly different environment.

This report doesn’t mince its words: “Today solidarity with migrants is a crime. Save people from drowning in cold waters and you are a human trafficker. Open a shelter for stranded people in an abandoned train station and you are a trespasser. Give food to the hungry and you are a threat to hygiene standards.” It cites cases where individuals have been sentenced by the courts for helping refugees.

Worse, the targeting of NGOs is leading to more deaths at sea for desperate migrants trying to reach Europe. The report detects “a wide pattern of systematic intimidation and repression across the European Union.”

The vicious policies of newly elected hard right governments grab a lot of the headlines. But it is EU policy itself that also needs attention: as early as 2014, the EU pressurised Italy to end one its most successful rescue mission in the Mediterranean, in order to ‘deter’ refugees. Yet the idea that life-saving activities help attract migrants is not supported by the evidence. Worse, the forced withdrawal of these missions also show a complete disregard for the right to life.

Meanwhile the EU and the Italian government poured money into the hands of militias and security forces now tasked with preventing refugees’ departures from Libya, a country without a coherent government since western military intervention in 2011. Testimonies from migrants who have spent time in Libyan camps speak of arbitrary detention, rape and enslavement, as well as conditions that amount to torture. Yet the Italian government has negotiated with criminals and militias to prevent migrants escaping this. Traffickers have been paid and turned into border guards, who have used their weapons to sink migrant boats.

In one incident, a rescue boat was seeking to rescue 100 migrants at sea, “when the Libyan coastguard intervened. They positioned themselves between the boat and rescue speedboats, tried to stop them recovering anyone and threatened the crew with weapons, as they demanded that the people they rescued be ‘returned’ to them. A journalist on board, Cristina Más, described the threats by the captain of the Libyan boat, who shouted ‘I am the captain, give me the migrants or we’ll kill you’ three times.”

When the crew finally returned to Italy, they were accused of illegal smuggling, charges potentially entailing up to 15 years imprisonment. Such attempts to link NGO rescue missions to collusion with people traffickers embolden the far right not only to disrupt humanitarian missions but to mount legal cases against those who offer charitable assistance.

In 2017, the Italian government imposed a draconian code on NGOs involved in migrant rescues, failure to sign which would result in refusal of the use of Italian ports. Médecins Sans Frontières refused to sign, but also highlighted cases where crews were infiltrated by police officers, a clear demonstration of the priorities of the Italian state.

Individuals have also faced the full force of the law. When an Alpine mountain guide gave a lift near the French border to a family including a heavily pregnant woman, he was charged with facilitating illegal immigration and faces a sentence of up to five years.

Civil society organisations offering help have been similarly targeted. Rome’s ‘Baobab’ centre, an informal shelter has been raided 18 times by police. The issuing of orders to ban people from towns where they conduct humanitarian activities has also become commonplace in Italy. Violent evictions, involving water cannon have been documented. Italian town councils have passed bylaws to “forbid the distribution and/or provision of food and drinks in public spaces by unauthorised people”.  In the Netherlands, providing shelter to an undocumented migrant and failing to report the person can lead to a €250 fine.

Freedom of expression is also under attack. Gianluca di Candia, a lawyer and activist, was charged with “offending the institutions” after criticising draft immigration laws when addressing a demonstration in Rome in 2017.

In 2015, as part of its European Agenda on Migration, the EU began herding migrants into ‘hotspots’, such as the notorious camp on Lesbos, to ensure the identification, registration and fingerprinting of people on a systematic basis. Migrants from those countries considered ‘safe’ were issued with deportation orders, without being informed of their individual right to claim asylum. Amnesty International reported multiple allegations of the use of force and beatings, as well as “the denial of basic assistance including medical care, food and water” to obtain fingerprints.

In return for implementing the ‘hotspot’ approach, other EU member states promised Italy and Greece to relocate some 160,000 people across the EU. However, this never materialised and the holding centres have effectively become detention centres for people, now reclassified by the EU as “economic migrants”, awaiting forcible return.

The broader impact of these policies became clear this year. The report says: “The degradation of debate as migrants and migrant support groups are targeted has affected the political landscape. In the first months of 2018, this has included the rightward and populist drift that emerged with the electoral victories of Viktor Orban in Hungary, Sebastian Kurz in Austria, the Lega and the 5 Star Movement in Italy, and Janez Jansa in Slovenia.”

But even before this, the response of the EU Commission and members states should alarm activists. It constitutes another example of the way in which the space for legal activism on a number of fronts is being consciously diminished.

In response, European NGOS and movements have launched a Trans-European campaign for a European Citizens’ Initiative directed at the EU Commission. The petition, which is expected to be signed by one million EU citizens, calls on the EU to: “(a) offer direct support to local groups that help refugees who are granted national visas, and (b) to guarantee more effective ways and rules to defend all victims of labour exploitation and crime across Europe and all victims of human rights abuses at our borders, and to revise the ‘Facilitation Directive’ to pressure EU Member States governments to stop criminalizing solidarity.”

Criminalising and delegitimising human rights defenders have been accompanied by attempts to impose harsh conditions for immigrants all over Europe, concludes the report. “Since solidarity has been framed as a crime and a whole apparatus is being put in place to prosecute and drain the forces of any dissidence, activists and citizens should look for past and present examples to open up new spaces, promote respect for life, dignity and freedom of movement. This is not just because of migrants’ rights, but also because criminalization promoted by high-level authorities is putting the core values of European democracies at risk. Today, the front line is migration. Tomorrow, these techniques could be used widely in Europe against anyone campaigning on the environment, free speech, diversity and so on.”

To read the report, see