Sunday

7th Mar 2021

Opinion

Sea Watch: Lack of EU action is criminalising solidarity

  • Without a stronger commitment from the new European Parliament and Commission, these trends on the criminalisation of helping migrants are likely to soar (Photo: Sea Watch)

After the arrest of Carola Rackete, the captain of rescue ship Sea Watch 3, was broadcast worldwide, citizens across Europe quickly raised over €1m for Sea Watch's legal defence funds and over 250,000 people signed petitions in support of Sea Watch and against the criminalisation of solidarity.

But as Carola's case is making the headlines, many more go under the radar.

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Well beyond the situation in Italy, the criminalisation of solidarity has spread across Europe and entrapped both NGOs and ordinary citizens, including lifeguards, fire-fighters, doctors, priests, journalists, teachers and volunteers.

Without a stronger commitment from the new European Parliament and Commission, these trends on criminalisation are likely to soar.

An in-depth EU-funded investigation by non-governmental organisations and researchers has identified at least 158 people who have been investigated or formally prosecuted from 2015 to 2019.

Despite the 90 percent decrease in irregular arrivals to Europe during the same period, the number of countries and cases criminalising solidarity continues to rise.

In the first three months of 2019 alone, 79 cases were under investigation.

The criminalisation of solidarity has claimed victims in Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

All these cases can be related to one EU law—the 2002 Facilitation Directive—which fails to distinguish between human smuggling and humanitarian assistance.

Individuals across Europe are being investigated and charged with smuggling, money laundering, membership in a criminalisation organisation, even espionage. Everyday acts of kindness – giving someone food, water, a ride, a phone call, a place to sleep – are being turned into illegal acts.

Donating food and water is what Hungarian pastor Gabor Ivanyi did, only to become the first volunteer criminalised in Hungary.

Offering shelter has led to charges against priests in Germany, Italy and Switzerland as well as journalists and mayors in other European countries. The most recent target was pastor Norbert Valley, who was arrested in the middle of a church service.

Driving a pregnant woman in labour to the nearest hospital is what Benoit Ducos did. Simply offering a ride has led to cases against academics, writers and retirees in Denmark, France and Greece.

First responders have been stopped from doing their job, including medical staff and firefighters like Spanish firefighters Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre, Miguel Roldan and Quique Rodríguez.

These criminalised citizens are not alone. European civil society organisations are coming together to their defence, from Amnesty International to Caritas Europa, Doctors without Borders, PICUM, Red Cross, Social Platform and the Welcoming Europe campaign.

Still, the effects of these prosecutions are chilling.

In Greece, the jailing of volunteer lifeguards on Lesvos scared away most other civilian emergency rescuers. As humanitarians are often the only actors providing immediate medical services and interpreters, this left behind an island and refugees dependent on their help.

European citizens have donated millions to life-saving NGO boats, which are now being detained, confiscated and consumed by massive legal fees and fines.

One of Europe's few female boat captains, Pia Klemp, faces up to 20 years in prison in Italy for the work of her boat Luventa.

So many NGO boats have been blocked that, for months on end, there have been no European rescue boats in the Mediterranean and the death rate has soared.

Dozens more cases

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg.

The global media platform openDemocracy has documented dozens more cases of intimidation and harassment against professionals volunteering their time to help others and save lives, while NGOs in central Europe, Italy and the UK have to work in a 'hostile environment' with regular attacks on their credibility, funding and staff and without the safeguards they need to protect the people they serve.

Laws criminalising solidarity are affecting us all, as more and more people fear that helping another human being will lead them to court and, potentially, to prison.

In response to this trend, the European parliament has called for a clear set of guidelines and an observatory on criminalisation.

Yet every week brings new cases, new developments and new petitions for support.

Just last week, Italy's Salvini government adopted a decree to fine NGO boats €10,000-50,000 per person rescued and to spend €3m on undercover investigations of them.

We—European civil society organisations and humanitarian actors— are concerned by the EU's lack of action.

Civilian humanitarianism is a highly skilled operation that works to complement the lifesaving of the authorities, instead of hampering them.

The new members of the European parliament must hold the next set of European commissioners to account when screening their policy positions on the criminalisation of solidarity.

All people have a right to dignity and all European citizens have the fundamental right to help.

Author bio

Michele LeVoy is director of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM). Sean Binder is a trained maritime search and rescuer who volunteered as a coordinator of civilian rescue operations in Greece in 2018. He was arrested for his humanitarian work and spent 106 days in pre-trial detention. The case remains ongoing and he faces 25 years imprisonment.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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