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Europe ‘criminalising’ humanitarian workers for helping migrants  

Refugees are seen after being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea on 15 June 2017 [Marcus Drinkwater/Anadolu Agency]
Refugees are seen after being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea on 15 June 2017 [Marcus Drinkwater/Anadolu Agency]

Hundreds of Europeans, including priests nominated for the Nobel Prize, a football player, fire fighters and ex-soldiers are being “criminalised” for helping migrants, a new report by OpenDemocracy has found.

The intimidation of ordinary citizens of Europe is said to be the result of the rise of far-right groups in Europe; some of whom have made their assault on migrants the main platform of their campaign.

The report, based on a database complied by OpenDemocracy, found that “countries across Europe have criminalised acts that facilitate illegal immigration”. While some laws are said to be intended to deter human smugglers they are also being used to target “humanitarian actors, including search and rescue boat crews and volunteer lifeguards”.

READ: Amnesty accuses EU of abetting migrant rights violations in Libya

As many as 250 people across 14 countries have been arrested, according to the report. They have been charged or are being investigated under a range of laws passed over the last five years for supporting migrants. Penalties for breaching these laws, which activists have described as “criminalising solidarity”, include the threat of prison and fines.

The number of people being criminalised for their humanitarian work is said to have “risen sharply in the last 18 months, particularly in Italy and France, where far-right parties are in power at national and local levels.”

Their crime is alleged to be nothing more than providing food, shelter, transport, or other support to migrants without legal papers.

In addition to Italy and France, the UK, Germany, Iceland, Spain and Sweden were all listed in the report as having arrested or charged people last year for disrupting deportations.

Groups campaigning for the rights of migrants expressed disbelief over the findings of the report. “OpenDemocracy’s database captures not only the most shocking cases of criminalisation, but also so many insidious cases of intimidation and harassment on many other grounds,” said Thomas Huddleston, research coordinator at the Migration Policy Group think-tank in Brussels.

READ: Amnesty lambasts EU downscaling of Mediterranean migration mission

According to Huddleston: “Europe’s main civil society groups and researchers are working together to dig into this database in order to demand action after the elections from the new European Commission and Parliament.”

In one of the most recent examples of the effort to criminalise humanitarian groups, Italy’s right-wing government introduced plans to fine NGO boats up to €5,500 per rescued migrants. Aid groups denounced the plan spearheaded by the far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, as a “declaration of war against the NGOs who are saving lives at sea”.

Yesterday Salvini threatened legal action following the rescue of 47 migrants by a humanitarian aid ship that defied the far-right politician and landed on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa with migrants from the coast of Libya.

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