Humanitarian organisations, including NGOs and civil society organisations, but also ordinary individuals are finding it increasingly difficult to provide assistance and protection to migrants trying to find refuge or better living conditions in Europe and many are now being criminalised for doing so. They are effectively punished for committing a solidarity crime (« délit de solidarité »).
Since when has saving a life or providing assistance become a criminal act? Does it mean that we view migrant’s lives as less valuable than our own and that their deaths are to be simply accepted as inevitable? Aren’t these peo organisations and people simply filling a gap left by national authorities unable or rather unwilling to fulfil their duty to protect the most vulnerable?
Prosecuted for committing a solidarity crime (« délit de solidarité »)
While the number of migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe has declined sharply compared to last year, those who do undertake the the journey are reported to face more dangers than ever. While this drop is in large part due to more restrictive asylum policies and the tightening of borders, a clear pattern is also emerging with European countries trying to discourage irregular migration by targeting those who engage in humanitarian and often life-saving activities both at sea and inland. In recent months, members of solidarity networks or simple individuals have been accused of human smuggling or of colluding with smugglers and human-trafficking networks and they have faced legal sanctions.
In August 2017, Céric Herrou, a French farmer, was given a suspended jail sentence for assisting migrants arriving from Italy in what was described by activists as a « délit de solidarité » (crime of solidarity) and a clear message sent to those attempting to assist migrants. More recently, in March 2018, Benoît Ducos, a French mountain guide rescued a eight and a half months pregnant Nigerian woman who was walking in a snowstorm along the border between Italy and France and he drove her to a hospital as she was about to give birth. As a result, he received a police summon for transporting people in an irregular situation and now faces up to 5 years in prison and a 30’000 euros in fines. Despite the legal risks, solidarity networks refuse to abandon these migrants who risk their lives to cross the mountain border into France and they stand ready to assist them.
On the 18th of March 2018, one week after the elections in Italy which saw the triumph of right-wing parties, the boat of a Spanish aid group Proactiva, an NGO rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, was impounded in Sicily with the authorities announcing they were launching an investigation against the Proactiva group for suspected criminal association and aiding illegal immigration. The boat had rescued 218 migrants and refugees at sea and refused to hand them over to the Libyan Coast Guard. Three members of the NGO are facing prison sentences.
So why are members of NGOs or ordinary people, who have simply decided to act in solidarity with other human being in need or even at risk of death and who most of us would consider as heroes, why are they labelled as criminals facing legal sanctions?
Getting rid of inconvenient witnesses
Part of the explanation may lie in the the concern on the part of European national authorities that these activities are creating a « pull factor », encouraging migrants to make the risky journey across the Mediterranean or to attempt to cross borders between European countries. Another concern is that NGOs and activists who are present at crossing point are inconvenient witnesses to the often deadly consequences of migration policies. Criminalising solidarity networks and aid workers is then also a way of trying to reduce and discourage the independent monitoring of the conduct of state authorities. According to an asylum law expert, « NGOs had become a problem for European countries. [They] not only continued to deliver migrants, but also witnessed the injustices perpetrated by Libyan authorities. Linking them to the traffickers was a pretext to get rid of them. »
In March 2018, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) condemned the criminalisation of humanitarian activities aimed at preventing and discouraging the provision of protection and assistance to migrants and refugees, who as a result of these practises are returned and retained in Libya « where they are exposed to extreme levels of violence, abuse, and exploitation. »