40 days in prison or a fine of 3.300 euros for offering coffee, cinnamon rolls and a lift to the train station to a refugee family. That’s what the Danish activist Mikael Lindholm and his wife experienced after helping one of the many refugee families that arrived in Denmark in 2015. “My wife called me saying that she was seeing all these migrants on the road and her car was empty, I asked a policeman if there will be a problem by offering a lift and he said he didn’t know”. So, she offered them a ride to their house where they ate cinnamon rolls. This Syrian family had fled from Damascus with their 2 children hoping to arrive to Sweden where they had family. So Lindholm drove them to the train station where he bought them tickets. A month later they were charged and sentenced for “human smuggling”. “We were shocked, how can helping someone be illegal? Authorities were completely unprepared; we couldn’t just leave them on the streets” denounced Mikael. Now, after exhausting the legal options in Denmark, the Danish couple is thinking about appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. Overall, Lindholm is happy because the Syrian family is now integrated in Sweden, “they even paid us a visit some months ago.”
The case of this Danish activist exemplifies the criminalisation of individuals and organisation helping migrants. But it’s not an exception. Paula Schmid Porras is the lawyer of three Spanish fireman charged with 10 years of imprisonmentafter rescuing people in the Mediterranean Sea. “At the end of 2015, my clients decided to go to Lesbos after seeing on the TV that more than 400 people were arriving to the Greek coast per day”. They rescued sinking vessels with the NGO PROEMAID in cooperation with the Greek coastguards. One night, after searching without result a sinking vessel with 50 people, they were arrested for “illegal transportation of people who don’t have the legal permits to enter in Greece and weapon possession”. The weapon, clarified Schimd, “was a little knife that a professional saver must have in the life jacket”. She describes this case as “absurd” because the international law of the sea states that when you know that a boat is sinking “you have the duty to assist”.
To avoid criminalisation of people helping migrants, Schimd stressed the importance of including in the European Directive against human smuggling a mandatory exception if we talk about humanitarian cause. Nowadays, the “humanitarian clause” exists but its application is voluntary by each member state.
Answering that requirement, Agnieszka Sternik, Policy Officer of DG HOME, European Commission claimed that rather than “trying to have the humanitarian clause as mandatory the European Commission has preferred to work hand in hand with all players including national authorities, law enforcement, HR association and civil society to work together on better understanding and better application of the legislation”. She recalled that 7 Member States, among them Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece, the first-line countries in receiving migrants, have chosen to include “some of the forms of this exemption”. Sternik emphasised that numerous documents adopted by the EU institutions stated that “no one providing humanitarian assistance should be punished”.
However, according to the findings of the PhD candidate in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, Jennifer Allsopp, “in the last 2 years we have noticed an increase of NGO criminalisation”. In Calais (France) or in Italian cities, authorities used the health and safety regulation “to prevent people giving food to irregular migrants”. In Greece putting a simple plastic casibo to shelter people from the rain or give medical assistance is treated as a violation of the public space.
Allshopp pointed at the “general climate of distress and hostility towards this organisation that are having the effect of stigmatising their work and thus dissuading funders and volunteers”. A clear example is when a politician in the UK said on TV that “people who tries to create safe routes have got blood on their hands because for every migrant child you help you are encouraging another one to come”. As the researcher put it “anything that seems to be granting human dignity is seen as a pull factor for migration”. Saying that we are saving future children that might come if the people who are coming now are safe is a “perverted logic”.
What is being done to secure legal ways to reach Europe?
In 2016, 40.000 people were resettled, an increase in comparison with the 8.000 in 2015 and 6.500 in 2014. Aleksander Romanovic, Policy Officer at DG HOME, European Commission, explained that this increase coincides with the EU level Resettlement Schemes (2015) implementation, agreed by 27 countries. However, Romanovic, pointed out that the responsibility among the Member States is still “unequally shared, because 10 countries have not resettled anybody in the past 2 years, mainly for political reasons”.
According to Sabrina Le Noach, Migration Officer at the Red Cross there’s about 65 million people displaced, so the EU numbers addressing humanitarian needs “fall short”. That’s why she stressed the importance of strengthening tools as family reunification and humanitarian visas. “Family reunification is a right but there are obstacles such as the cost of the procedures, difficulty to get a DNA test, a visa and the slowness, which can take 3 years”.
A “quick-live saving tool” for people in urgent need of care is the humanitarian visa. The main barrier referred by Le Noach is the “lack of clarity on how to process and issue this visa and a lack of political will”. She described as “disappointing” the decision of the EU Court of Justice stating that the responsibility for granting humanitarian visas stays with Member State, but still has hope that “the European Commission will find ways to support humanitarian visas".
Adding to this idea, Petra Hueck from the ICMC Europe said that even if the political context has not been very “migrant friendly” we have seen civil society wanting to welcome refugees. They promote private sponsorship, inspired by the Canadian model. This are groups of individuals or organisations covering the cost of a year of housing and support for some people and then the State takes over.
Another example are the human corridors that the European Federation of the Community of Sant’Egidio has established with Libya, Lebanon and Ethiopia. Its Liaison officer, Céline Francis, explained that it is a self-funded initiative, negotiated in addition to the resettlement quotas assumed by each government. “As an organisation we identify the possible beneficiaries and then the consular authorities give the visa if the requirements are met”. Then they cover the living cost of this person for a year. In 2013 the first human corridor was established between Lebanon and Italy for 1.000 people. San Marino welcomed 8 people, Italy will receive 500 people from Ethiopia and soon 500 people in Lebanon will safely travel to France. Nowadays, they are in discussion with Spain, Poland and Belgium to establish human corridors in order to prevent a possible death crossing the Mediterranean sea.
To put a face to these numbers, Celine told the story of two women. “The first one was 27 years old, she was imprisoned in a country in war, then freed by a soldier and saved by a family. The second one was 40 years old, fled from a country in war arrived to Europe where she was helped by a church group. The first one was my grandmother, imprisoned in a Nazi camp, then freed by a German soldier and saved by a German family. The second is Riyab, a Syrian that crossed many countries and now lives in my city and is supported by volunteers”.