40 days in prison or a fine of EUR 3 300 for offering a refugee family coffee, cinnamon rolls and a lift to the train station. 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. She asked a policeman if there would be any problem with 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 get to Sweden where they had family. So Lindholm drove them to the train station where he bought them tickets. A month later the couple 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’ Mikael decried. Now, after exhausting all legal options in Denmark, the couple is thinking about appealing the judgment to the European Court of Human Rights. Overall, Lindholm is happy because the Syrian family is now settled in Sweden, adding ‘they even paid us a visit some months ago.’
The case of this Danish activist exemplifies the criminalisation of individuals and organisations that help migrants. But it’s not an exception. Paula Schmid Porras is the lawyer for 3 Spanish fireman facing 10 years' imprisonment after rescuing people in the Mediterranean Sea. ‘At the end of 2015, my clients decided to go to Lesbos after seeing on TV that more than 400 people were arriving on the Greek coast every day’. While volunteering with the NGO PROEMAID , they rescued sinking vessels, in cooperation with the Greek coastguards. One night, after searching without success for a sinking vessel with 50 people on board, they were arrested for ‘illegal transportation of people without legal permits to enter Greece and possession of a weapon’. The weapon, clarified Schmid, ‘was a little knife that a professional lifesaver must have in his or her lifejacket’. 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 criminalising people who help migrants, Schmid stressed the importance of including a mandatory exception in the European Directive against human smuggling, if the act was carried out for humanitarian purposes. Nowadays, the ‘humanitarian clause’ exists but its application is voluntary in each Member State.
Speaking on this issue, Agnieszka Sternik, a policy officer at the European Comission's DG HOME, 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, human rights associations and civil society to foster better understanding and better application of the legislation’. She recalled that 7 Member States, among them Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece, front-line countries in receiving migrants, chose 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 Jennifer Allsopp, a PhD candidate in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and in the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, ‘in the last 2 years we have noticed an increase of NGO criminalisation’. In Calais (France) or in Italian cities, authorities used health and safety regulations ‘to prevent people giving food to irregular migrants’. In Greece providing simple plastic gazebos and canopies to shelter people from the rain or give medical assistance is treated as a violation of the public space.
Allsopp pointed to the ‘general climate of distress and hostility towards these organisations, which is having the effect of stigmatising their work and thus dissuading funders and volunteers’. A clear example of this happened when a UK politician said on TV that ‘people who try 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 support 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 compared with 8 000 in 2015 and 6 500 in 2014. Aleksander Romanovic, a policy officer at the European commission's DG HOME, explained that this increase coincides with the implementation of the EU-level Resettlement Schemes (2015), agreed by 27 countries. However, Romanovic pointed out that 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, about 65 million people are displaced, so the EU numbers addressing humanitarian needs ‘fall short’. That’s why she stressed the importance of strengthening tools such as family reunification and humanitarian visas. ‘Family reunification is a right, but there are obstacles, such as the cost of the procedures, difficulty in getting a DNA test and a visa , and the slowness of the process, which can take 3 years’, she said.
A ‘quick lifesaving tool’ for people in urgent need of care is the humanitarian visa. The main barriers referred to by Le Noach are the ‘lack of clarity on how to process and issue this visa and a lack of political will’. She described the decision from the EU Court of Justice stating that the responsibility for granting humanitarian visas remains with the Member State was “disappointing”. However she still hopes that ‘the European Commission will find ways to support humanitarian visas’.
In addition, 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 involves groups of individuals or organisations covering the cost of a year’s housing and support for some people, after which the State takes over.
Another example are 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’. They then cover the living costs of the person in question 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 from Lebanon will travel safely to France. Currently the Federation is holding discussions with Spain, Poland and Belgium on establishing human corridors in order to prevent more deaths among migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
To give these numbers a face, Celine told the story of 2 women: ‘The first one was 27 years old; she was imprisoned in a country at war, then freed by a soldier and saved by a family. The second one was 40 years old, fled from a country at war, arrived in 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 who crossed many countries and now lives in my city and is supported by volunteers’.