This post was written by Help Refugees long-term volunteer in Calais, Luke Buckler.
There’s a worrying shift in European attitudes towards the work of people trying to support refugees.
Thanks to the Beast from the East, it’s been a cold winter. Which of you, if you had sheep, would’ve braved the snow to help move a pregnant sheep to safety? Farmer David Mallon did just that. It might have been difficult, but he did it out of concern for the animals, he said. It’s commendable.
Now, what if you found a pregnant women, cold in the snow — in the mountains, for example — who was near to giving birth? What would you do? Would you try to help them?*
I presume that for most people the answer would be easy — easier, perhaps, than if sheep were involved. And if you knew someone who had done such a thing, that person would be considered a hero. While David Mallon did a good thing, helping a pregnant woman to safety from the snow would perhaps be considered even more praiseworthy.
Half way through March, part of this scenario happened to a French person in Briançon, in the French Alps. Benoît Ducos was taking a family (a woman, a man, and their two kids (2 and 4 years old)) in his car to the hospital. The woman was heavily pregnant and having contractions. Instead of being seen as a hero, though, Benoît Ducos was arrested because this family didn’t have official documentation to be in the country and he was helping them. He faces the prospect of five years in prison and a €30,000 fine.
Sadly, this isn’t an isolated occurrence. France has arrested a number of people for helping refugees. These people have been arrested for what’s become known as the “Crime of Solidarity” (Article L622–1 of French immigration law). While this law is suppose to stop people from providing services to “irregular” refugees and migrants for profit, people who have been helping refugees and migrants simply out of concern are being caught up in it
Last week, after the authorities once again took the belongings of the homeless people we support in Calais, the Help Refugees distribution team tried to help the refugees by replacing tents and sleeping bags. In theory, the authorities recognise the right for refugees to have things to keep them warm and dry (when they take the refugees’ items, they say they only take those that have been discarded — they claim to be, in effect, just “cleaning” the areas where people have been congregating); however, a number of our volunteers were fined for making sure people had the things they needed, and they had to present themselves to the police station ‘under suspicion of installing people on the land. We are waiting to hear whether they will be charged with an offence of solidarity, for giving refugees shelter’.
Thankfully, the “Crime of Solidarity” law should be reviewed in France in May and some politicians would like to see it amended to ensure that people who are helping refugees simply out of concern aren’t targeted by it. If this happens, it will be a positive step in a political environment that otherwise seems in danger of sliding the opposite direction.
Take Belgium, the host of the EU’s political institutions, for example. Belgian citizens have shown inspiring solidarity to refugees, inviting refugees into their homes as guests. This is an outstanding example of compassion and kindness to people in need. And the government’s response? To propose ‘a bill that would allow police to search private homes if they suspect them of sheltering unauthorised migrants’.
Similar things have happened in other European countries for a number of years, but it seems to be escalating. For instance, recently Hungary’s government said it plans to introduce a law that would allow it to ban organisations that help immigrants.
These laws aren’t just crimes against human decency. They’re also endangering the lives of innocent people. More than that, these laws are killing innocent people. This isn’t hypothetical. We don’t have to imagine what would’ve happened to the pregnant woman and her baby had she not been taken to hospital by Benoît Ducos.
In the Mediterranean recently, the search and rescue NGO Proactiva Open Arms’ ship Open Arms was impounded in an Italian port with crew members ‘suspected of criminal association in illegal immigration’. A similar thinghappened last year and Jugend Rettet’s Iuventa is still impounded. The NGOs involved deny any wrong doing and the search and rescue (SAR) community have spoken out in protest. Earlier in 2017, the same prosecutor who ordered the impounding of Open Arms said he had evidence of SAR charities ‘colluding with people-smugglers’. He opened an investigation which actually discovered (or admitted) there wasn’t any evidence of collusion. It seems these are tactics to intimidate SAR NGOs and criminalise the rescue of refugees migrating across the Mediterranean Sea.
“We are seeing an alarming trend by Italian and other European governments who actively seek to criminalise and block NGOs, including MSF, from conducting Search and Rescue activities in the Central Mediterranean.” https://t.co/uUbEUOGMHW
— Jeff Crisp (@JFCrisp) March 21, 2018
SAR NGOs are saying the EU are demanding they break international maritime law. Maritime legislation includes a legal version of “normal human decency”. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea says that boats must ‘render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost’ (Article 98) and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue says ‘Any search and rescue unit receiving information of a distress incident shall initially take immediate action if in the position to assist’ (4.3). The EU is criminalising normal human decency. Now there are only two NGO SAR rescue boat in the Med (there used to be 12). The number of deaths in the Med has increased proportionally by 75% since last year. The EU’s criminalisation of kindness is endangering people’s lives; it’s killing people.
The number of deaths at sea has increased proportionally by 75% : search & rescue operations must be strengthened, and saving lives must be the number 1 priority
Rescue of #migrants in difficulty,wherever they are, is a principle of humanity and solidarity https://t.co/4hPhF6P7o1
— Flavio Di Giacomo (@fladig) March 28, 2018
One of the contradictions highlighted again in this most recent case is that the EU wants SAR NGOs to not be able to transfer people they have rescued from one NGO boat to another, and yet the NGO was supposed to transfer people to the Libyan coast guard (LCG). With the impounding of Open Arms, the SAR NGO’s supposed crimes included refusing to turn over to the LCG the people it had rescued (the LCG would have taken the people back to Libya, where they had escaped from). It is unbelievable that these could be considered crimes considering what we know Libya is like for refugees — and, for that matter, what the Libyan coast guard is like. To hand people over to the LCG would be to hand them over to incarceration, slavery, torture, rape, and death.
People including children described horrific beatings by guards at detention centres, while many women said they faced rape and other sexual violence at the hands of smugglers and guards.
It seems of little importance to the EU that their actions of working with and funding the Libyan authorities to take people back to Libya go against international law (international law states that victims should not be forced to return to a country they’ve fled. Technically, this is called the ‘principle of non-refoulement’). In 2012, Italy was condemned by the EU’s own Court of Human Rights for returning migrants to Libya. Normal human decency is being criminalised by States while the States ignore their own legal obligations.
Handing people rescued at sea back to Libyan authorities would breach a principle of international law and ECHR: that no one can be sent to face torture.
Refusing to do so – and to act in violation of that principle – cannot be considered a crime.
— Matteo de Bellis (@matteodebellis) March 19, 2018
In March last year, a number of people stopped others being deported from the UK by lying on the runway at Stansted airport. They were stopping a Home Office deportation charter flight and were arrested under the charge of aggravated tresspass. Later, the charges were inflated to terrorism offences. The protesters could now face life in prison. It seems the UK authorities are expanding Theresa May’s “hostile environment” to people who show solidarity to refugees. While France might (hopefully) change its law, it seems the UK might be thinking of moving towards arresting and charging people for the “Crime of Solidarity”.
Thankfully, there is resistance. Back last March, Natacha Bouchart the Mayor of Calais banned food distributions to refugees in Calais. Let that sink in. Natacha Bouchart banned people from giving food to homeless people. But local associations — including our partners L’Auberge des Migrants, RCK, and Utopia 56, and ourselves — continued to distribute. A French person — Cédric Herrou — who is being tried as a people smuggler for having compassion on refugees ‘has repeatedly stated “I am a Frenchman” and claims he is “doing the work of the state”. Another activist explains that “at some point it is our duty to disobey”’.
Those providing humanitarian assistance … are not criminals; rather, they are acting as humanitarian citizens … they are performing the role of the humanitarian citizen to uphold international human rights even when the law criminalises such actions.
We are underdogs, for sure; but if you’d like to join the movement, you’ll be welcome.
J. Pescinski, ‘Humanitarian citizens: breaking the law to protect human rights’ (28/08/17) on openDemocracy
M. Howden, ‘Europe’s new anti-migrant strategy? Blame the rescuers’ (20/03/18) on Prospect