Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

People helping migrants 'increasingly persecuted in EU'

  • People rescuing migrants and asylum seekers face increasing persecution by national authorities (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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A number of activists going on trial this week in Greece risk 25 years in jail - for having helped rescue people at sea.

Three were arrested in 2018, while working for the Greek-based Emergency Response Centre International (ECRI), an NGO.

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Along with 21other people, they have been charged with people-smuggling, money-laundering, espionage and being members of a criminal organisation.

Some have already spent over 100 days in pre-trial detention before being released on bail: among them, search-and-rescue volunteers Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini.

Rights group have described the charges as another means to criminalise "humanitarian activism", an issue that is becoming more pervasive across much of Europe.

"The slipshod investigation and absurd charges, including espionage, against people engaged in life-saving work reeks of politically motivated prosecution," said Human Rights Watch, an NGO, in a statement.

It was a point also driven last week by Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik in a debate with the EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson.

"The humanitarian assistance of migrants or refugees is criminalised in more and more member states," said Strik.

"Moral and legal obligations like humanitarian assistance or rescuing people is being de facto criminalised," she said.

In another case, a Greek court in May handed down a 146-year prison sentence to a Somali asylum seeker, accused of human smuggling.

"Nobody chooses to be a refugee," Filippo Grandi the UN high commissioner for refugees, recently told the European Parliament.

He described "irresponsible xenophobic discourse", violent pushbacks, and beatings of migrants among the knee-jerk reactions found in Europe.

Similar findings of criminalisation of migrants and those who help them have been documented by rights groups.

A joint report published on Monday (15 November) say such attacks have increased dramatically across Belgium, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey.

The 53-page report was written by the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

"The EU and member states should overhaul their approach to migration, by placing human rights at its core," said FIDH's Alexis Deswaef, in a statement.

When it comes to criminalising people who help others, the report identified three trends.

These are the creation of a hostile environment around migration, use of administrative law to curb human rights defence work, as well as the use of criminal law to silence them.

Examples abound.

In September, senior Polish interior ministers tried to link a zoophile pornographic image with migrants attempting to cross in from Belarus.

The image was later debunked but had by then already appeared on state-run TVP television.

A recent European Parliament report identified at least 60 cases of formal criminalisation, involving at some 171 people in 13 member states as of December 2019.

Most of the cases were lodged in Greece and Italy, it said.

EU laws, known as the 'Facilitators Package', has also given member states wide berth to decide what constitutes human trafficking.

Even though some EU states have included a humanitarian-exemption clause, many do not implement it. It means people who help others, even when no profit or other monetary gain is involved, can find themselves in court.

For its part, the European Commission says some 90 percent of migrant arrivals make use of smugglers.

The commission, in late September, introduced a new five-year plan to crack down on migrant smuggling.

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