Europe’s Quiet Offensive Against People Helping Refugees

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Europe’s Quiet Offensive Against People Helping Refugees

A look back on three years since the end of Operation Mare Nostrum.

A soldier secures the deck of an abandoned boat during an Italian Navy operation 'Mare Nostrum' in the Mediterranean Sea, 2015.

A soldier secures the deck of an abandoned boat during an Italian Navy operation 'Mare Nostrum' in the Mediterranean Sea, 2015. (Photo: Giuseppe Lami/EPA/cc)

Three years ago today, pressure by the European Union on Italy forced the end of one of the EU’s most successful humanitarian missions, Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation that in just one year brought 130,000 refugees safely to Europe’s shores.

As the death toll mounted in the wake of this decision, including 1,200 victims at sea five months later, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) stepped into the breach, launching their own rescue missions in a desperate attempt to save lives. Their efforts were part of a wave of compassion across Europe that year, as people organised convoys to refugee reception centers, warmly greeted arrivals at German train stations and lined highways to provide food and water to those making the arduous trek from war-torn regions of Syria and elsewhere.

As European politicians retreated from their humanitarian obligations, its citizens demonstrated Europe’s tradition of compassion, solidarity and commitment to the Geneva Conventions.

In his first State of the Union address, EU Commission President Juncker had even praised the volunteers as representative of the kind of “Europe I want to live in”. Yet just a few short years later, the Union looks very different, and Juncker is silent as those very same activists are now being treated as criminals rather than heroes.

To cite just a few recent cases, in February 2017, a French shepherd, Cedric Herrou, from the Roya Valley, was condemned to an eight-month suspended prison sentence and a €3,000 fine for providing shelter to homeless migrants. In Denmark, Lisbeth Zornig Andersen was fined in 2016 for opening her house to refugee families with nowhere to live. In February 2017, on the border between Greece and Macedonia more than 60 volunteers from Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, the UK, and the Czech Republic were subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation by armed police, including threats of arrest and arbitrary house searches. These cases are the tip of a particularly unpleasant iceberg that should shame Europe’s leaders.

It is important to stress that these cases are both a product and violation of EU law. The 2002 Directive on the facilitation of illegal entry and residence, which is aimed at organised people traffickers, contains a non-binding humanitarian exemption that is supposed to ensure that such activities are excluded from its scope. Fifteen years later, however, two-thirds of EU member states now apply the law but not the exemption, paving the way for the widespread criminalisation of refugee solidarity and activism. These laws are supplemented by a raft of administrative procedures that hinder NGO operations or further restrict the scope for refugee assistance. The Netherlands requires people to report undocumented migrants. Cyprus forbids refugee groups from working with pro bono lawyers. Croatia moved recently to criminalise the feeding of ‘illegal’ migrants.

This attack on human rights defenders and flagrant disregard for the EU’s international humanitarian law and human rights obligations is not an aberration but a product of EU policy and practice. The EU’s Border and Coastguard Agency (ECBG, formally known as Frontex) is guilty of smearing NGO search-and-rescue boats by implying their collusion with traffickers and smugglers, despite an Italian Senate Committee enquiry of April this year finding no evidence no such links. These smears prefaced a wider attack on those NGOs operating in the Mediterranean by an unholy alliance of state agencies and far right activists.

Search-and-rescue missions, conducted by household names like Medicins Sans Frontieres and Save the Children as well as new organisations that emerged in response to the humanitarian crisis, have been relentlessly targeted. In Greece, three Spanish firemen, on a rescue mission for the Proem-Aid association, were arrested at sea and detained for 60 hours before being bailed on charges of human trafficking. In Italy, undercover intelligence agents have infiltrated NGOs and operated covertly on search-and-rescue boats. Several vessels have been now been seized pending further investigations. Coupled with a ‘voluntary’ Code of Conduct which all but ended the capacity for the NGOs to operate independently, these actions have had the desired effect of stopping the rescue missions altogether.

The manufactured narrative around NGOs and trafficking has also been seized upon by populists and fascists, such as the crowd-funded ‘Defend Europe’ boat launched in July with the aim of actively disrupting the humanitarian NGOs. While they abandoned their mission because of disruption by antifascists, they were to claim success by arguing that that the Italian and Libyan governments had done the job for them: “Only two months ago, many NGOs sailed in front of the Libyan coasts, like cabs waiting for customers. Today, there is only one.” The unleashing of these forces has led to much wider attacks on Italian NGOs that are reminiscent of the scapegoating and demonisation of George Soros in Hungary.

The criminalisation of refugee solidarity is the latest salvo in an EU policy long predicated on stopping refugees reaching in EU states at any cost, be that by letting them drown, confining them to camps in Turkey, or paying brutal Libyan militiamen to  prevent their departure. The targeting of activists who oppose these policies and want to live in the same kind of Europe as Jean-Claude Juncker is about removing witnesses to what is happening and dissuading other European citizens that more humane policies are possible. This dismembering of Europe’s values and principles has turned the Mediterranean into a mass grave in the name of creating a ‘deterrent’ effect.

Three years ago, Europe’s citizens stepped in where its leaders failed – showing the compassion and solidarity upon which the EU is founded. It is time for Europe’s politicians to show the same courage and end a duplicitous policy capable only of piling misery of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Ben Hayes

Ben Hayes is a fellow of the Transnational Institute and an independent researcher.

Frank Barat

Frank Barat is coordinator of the War and Pacification program at the Transnational Institute. He has edited several books, the latest being Freedom is a Constant Struggle with Angela Davis.

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