First published on WESTT Blog
Aiding smuggling, facilitating clandestine movement, criminal organization and espionage. These are the charges against three volunteers in Lesvos and accusations against an NGO rescue ship—both tales of individuals and civil society filling the gaps that the state has not been able to provide.
What authorities claim as systematically facilitating illegal entry, volunteers and civil society know as emergency response and safe rescue. These charges come down to perspectives and a clash of priorities. On the one side, you have solidarians on the south coast of Lesvos who sees a boat arriving and hundreds of people in shocking conditions and acts by helping them off a tattered dingy, giving them a blanket, something to drink and a welcoming face. On the other side is a group of elites who view a boat full of people seeking safety on Europe’s shores as a threat and nothing else. Notions of humanity are erased by this perspective, and fascism and xenophobia reign.
For those seeking asylum, clandestine travel is often the only option—it is not possible to ask for permission to exit the border from a government that you believe wants to do you harm. Yes, it is the case that with clandestine travel comes criminal smuggler routes with many criminals that benefit along the way – this is something that no one is denying. It is unreasonable, however, to envision that these smuggling networks would not exist without the appearance of support from grassroots rescue operations. The sea rescue done by groups like SOS Mediterranee are not the reason why the migrants are arriving at European shores, but they are the reason why they are surviving the journey. The Aquarius ship, which was the last rescue ship present in the Central Mediterranean and has been forced to cease operations since early October, has saved over 29,000 lives in two and a half years. FRONTEX head told Reuters that in 2017 half of the rescues at sea were done by NGOs.
What is the fate now of those who are crossing the Mediterranean?
To the dismay of right-wing politicians, civil society in both Italy and Greece is strong and acts of defiance on their behalf are common. Indeed the pan-European #WelcomingEurope European Citizen’s Initiative has launched to implore the European institutions to act to prevent this criminalization. Separate campaigns and petitions for #freeSarahandSeanand #SaveAquarius have been widely supported by civil society and citizens, as well as have mobilized protests and acts of solidarity across Europe.
Over 60 MEPs have supported the ECI and called on the institutions to put an EU-wide ban on the criminalization of humanitarian aid, including British S&D MEP Claude Moraes who drafted this particular resolution as well as the Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos who said that such charges “should be avoided.”
Clear opposition to this comes from Victor Orban’s anti-migrant government in Hungary, which recently adopted the “Stop Soros” law, which specifically criminalizes anyone whom they consider to be helping clandestine migration. The EU Parliament passed sanctions against Hungary for this law, which Orban dismissed as “petty revenge” and sent letters thanking MEPs, including MEP Georgios Epitideios from the Greek neo-Nazi party, who voted against the sanctions.
“I could be a criminal for saving a life at sea.
Firefighter and co-founder of Spanish sea recue NGO Proem-AID Manuel Blanco told The Intercept this before his trial in Lesvos. He and four other volunteers were accused of helping the trafficking between Turkey and Greece. They were acquitted of the charges, but the guilty verdict and the recent other arrests on similar charges illustrate the fear that these actions are intended to provoke.
“If the volunteers are scared,” Manuel said. “How many people could die at sea?”