A new report by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) highlights a dramatic increase in prosecutions across Europe for ‘crimes of solidarity’. When Witnesses Won’t be Silenced: citizens’ solidarity and criminalisation is the IRR’s second report in 18 months into the targeting by state forces of humanitarian activists who help migrants.
The Preface states: “Not only has the number of people placed under investigation increased, but new offences have been added to the charge sheet, including endangering maritime and airport security, espionage, criminal association and membership of a criminal network or gang. We have even seen laws designed to prosecute terrorists and the mafia applied to organisations and individuals who assist refugees and migrants, who in some cases have also had phones tapped and bank accounts frozen.”
In the case of search and rescue NGOs, investigations have been accompanied by ‘smear campaigns’. The hard right Italian government in particular has sought to delegitimise and obstruct aid associations and regularly refers to refugees in dehumanising terms. In one case, the mayor of Riace in Calabria, southern Italy, was placed under house arrest and temporarily banished from the town, after defying a government decree by granting refugees residency rights in abandoned houses in his small town.
Italy’s harassment of rescue ships in the Mediterranean has been accompanied by attempts to transfer responsibility for search and rescue to the Libyan coastguard – despite clear evidence from Human Rights Watch of its corruption and collusion with traffickers. By September last year, almost one in five of refugees who set off from a Libyan port for Europe either drowned or went missing. Meanwhile, a combination of violent attacks by the Libyan coastguard and legal harassment by the Italian government has pushed NGO rescue missions almost entirely out of the Central Mediterranean.
The situation is equally bad at land border crossings. The Croatian border police hold the EU record for violence and theft, with 700 reported cases in 2018 and many border-crossers suffering beatings and broken bones. The legal framework is also repressive: a Croatian volunteer who actually alerted police to the presence of refugees in a field was later charged and fined 8,000 euros for allegedly helping them.
Yet citizens’ solidarity networks and anti-deportation campaigns continue to spring up, challenging the laws that create boundaries between EU citizens and what Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán described as a ‘civilisational threat’. Hardline approaches by western governments have failed to deter volunteers from responding to the needs of new arrivals in places like Lesvos, Ventimiglia, and Calais.
Pressure is growing too on EU institutions to provide safety, solidarity and justice to refugees and those supporting them and to prevent humanitarian assistance from being criminalised. This is a refugee crisis, but it’s also one of EU values.