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Opendemocracy research reveals hundreds of Europeans arrested for “solidarity”

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Elderly women, firefighters and priests among hundreds of Europeans arrested for ‘solidarity’ with migrants, major new openDemocracy research reveals

Hundreds of Europeans have been arrested, investigated, or threatened with prison or fines under laws ‘criminalising solidarity’ with migrants over the past five years – with these cases rising sharply in the last 18 months.

A new dataset compiled by openDemocracy, the London-based global news website, reveals how citizens across Europe have been arrested for providing food, shelter and transport and other “basic acts of human kindness” to migrants.

The two countries with the highest number of cases, Italy and France, have far-right parties in power at the national and regional levels, respectively.

Human rights advocates warn that if far-right parties make big gains in next week’s European elections – where migration is a central battleground issue – arrest numbers are likely to rise still further across the continent.

openDemocracy has identified more than 250 people arrested, investigated, or threatened with prison or fines by authorities across 14 European countries – Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK – since 2015.

The vast majority of these cases took place in just 7 European countries: Italy, Greece, France, the UK, Spain, Germany and Denmark.

openDemocracy’s analysis reveals the human cost of these policies for a range of different people. It is the longest list ever compiled of these cases across borders to date – although experts warn that the true number could be much higher.

Headline cases include:

  • About half a dozen priests, including an evangelical pastor who was arrested in the middle of a church service in the Swiss mountains
  • First-responders, including a Spanish firefighter who faces up to 30 years in prison for rescuing migrants from drowning at sea in Greece
  • Several rural farmers and villagers, including a French olive grower arrested for feeding and sheltering migrants on the border of Italy
  • Elderly women, including a 70-year old Danish grandmother who was convicted and fined for offering a lift to a family with small children
  • Journalists and writers, including a children’s author and her husband who invited migrants to their home for coffee and biscuits in Denmark
  • Catholic volunteers, including a member of Secours Catholique, arrested for installing portable showers in Calais for homeless migrants

Countries across Europe have criminalised acts that facilitate illegal immigration – including directly or indirectly assisting entry, movement or settlement in a country without valid immigration papers, through to providing accomodation, food, shelter and assistance with transport. In some cases, these laws have existed for years (often to prevent human smuggling), but are now being applied with increasing severity under far right leaders.

In addition to arrests, there are numerous cases of other police and state sanctions against people for such acts of solidarity – including ‘expulsion orders’ from specific municipalities in Italy; search and seizures; and other investigations.

openDemocracy is working with journalists across Europe to document these cases, and, with the support of dozens of civil society groups, has now compiled an extensive pan-European list.

Mary Fitzgerald, Editor in Chief of openDemocracy, said: “Across Europe, elderly women, priests, footballers and firefighters are being criminalised for basic acts of human kindness. And it’s very likely the tip of the iceberg, with more cases yet to be identified.”

“It’s particularly worrying on the eve of the European elections, where far-right parties want to force through even more draconian immigration laws and deterrents. We urgently need more humane and sensible policies on migration. And we should be celebrating rather than arresting those who help other human beings.”

Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said:

“It is troubling to see the increasing pressure and restrictions that States put on the work of individuals and NGOs assisting migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Europe. They face administrative burdens intended to make their work impossible, stigmatisation by misleading and hostile political rhetoric, and even criminal prosecution.

Instead of clamping down on those who help migrants live a more dignified life, Council of Europe member states should become more serious in implementing the standards they agreed to and finally put human rights and the principle of responsibility sharing at the centre of their migration and asylum policies.

It is high time that political leaders across member states recommit with human rights, the rule of law and European values. This is both a legal and a moral duty.”

Country-specific information:

France

  • More than 50 of the cases in our dataset are in France
  • Many of the reported cases of arrests have fallen under the specific délit de solidarité or “Crime of Solidarity” (Article L622–1 of French immigration law), carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison. This law was amended in January 2013 and, despite its use against people who act for humanitarian reasons being declared unconstitutional in 2018, is it still being heavily applied in Calais which Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National far-right party, represents in the National Assembly.
  • In April 2016, Fernand Bosson, former mayor of the commune of Onnion was arrested for housing a family from Kosovo after their asylum application was dismissed.
  • In March 2018, Benoit Duclois, a French mountain guide was charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration, risking up to 5 years in prison, after he was ‘caught’ assisting a pregnant Nigerian migrant across the Italian-French border on foot in the snow.
  • Tom Ciotkowski, a British volunteer distributing food to refugees in Calais, is facing up to 5 years in prison and up to €7,500 in fines; charged with contempt and assault while documenting police abuse against refugees. (Trial this week in France – to be updated).
  • A British ex-soldier, Rob Lawrie, was arrested at the French border for smuggling, and threatened with a five-year prison sentence for trying to reunite a 4-year-old in the Calais refugee camp with her family in Leeds.

Italy

  • More than a quarter of the cases in our dataset are in Italy
  • Italian authorities have arrested citizens suspected of helping migrants across borders under the 1998 Italian Legislative Decree designed to criminalise human trafficking.
  • Don Mussie Zerai, a priest and Nobel prize nominee, was put under investigation for facilitating illegal immigration after rescuing migrants from drowning at sea. Spanish firefighter Miguel Roldan now also faces 20 years in prison in Italy for helping to rescue drowning refugees in the Mediterranean.

Greece

  • About 50 of the cases in our dataset are in Greece
  • Citizens in Greece who rescue migrants in the Mediterranean have been prosecuted under the 2014 Immigration and Social Inclusion law, designed to punish traffickers who seek to make money from migrants.
  • A German pensioner couple who owned a private boat and allowed migrants to come on board were taken to court in Greece and convicted in 2017 for smuggling and given 16.5 years each, later reduced on appeal to 3.5 years.
  • Three professional firefighters and two volunteers who tried to save lives off the coast of Greece were charged with “attempted smuggling” of people into the country.
  • In January 2016, a Spanish volunteer was charged with espionage for taking a photo of a Frontex (European border control) boat.

UK

  • More than a dozen people in our dataset were arrested in the UK
  • Tom Ciotkowski, a British volunteer distributing food to refugees in Calais, France, facing up to 5 years in prison and up to €7,500 in fines; charged with contempt and assault while documenting police abuse against refugees. (Trial this week in France – to be updated).
  • A British ex-soldier, Rob Lawrie, was arrested at the French border for smuggling, and threatened with a five-year prison sentence for trying to reunite a 4-year-old in the Calais refugee camp, in France, with her family in Leeds.

Belgium

  • A dozen people in our dataset were arrested in Belgium
  • Myriam Berghe, a freelance reporter, and Anouk Van Gestel, editor in chief of Marie-Claire Belgium, were accused of the crime of human trafficking after assisting refugees.

Germany

  • About a dozen people in our dataset were arrested, investigated, or charged in Germany.
  • Five pastors in Rhineland-Palatinate granted sanctuary to several refugees from Sudan. In January 2019, their parishes were searched and they’ve been charged with “Aid to Illegal Residence”.
  • A German pensioner couple who owned a private boat and allowed migrants to come on board were taken to court in Greece and convicted in 2017 for smuggling and given 16.5 years each. On appeal, the wife was released and husband had his sentence reduced to 3.5 years.

Spain

  • Around a dozen people in our dataset were arrested, charged, detained or investigated in Spain.
  • Spanish firefighter Miguel Roldan now also faces 20 years in prison in Italy for helping to rescue drowning refugees in the Mediterranean.
  • In January 2016, a Spanish volunteer was charged in Greece with espionage for taking a photo of a Frontex (European border control) boat.
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