Reclaim our right to help! Fight the criminalisation of humanitarian aid

The last time I saw my friend Seán was at our graduation in December 2017. Dressed in our gowns and strolling through the corridors of the university, Seán was telling me about his latest adventures—from volunteering for Amnesty Ireland to his plan of offsetting carbon by planting trees. I was thrilled to hear that he had decided to spend the year after graduation as a volunteer on the Greek Island of Lesbos—one of the main landing points for refugees in Greece.

On Lesbos, he would offer his skills as a rescue scuba diver for the NGO Emergency Response Centre International. He and his fellow volunteers provided humanitarian assistance, like rescuing drowning people from the sea and giving medical aid. He got to meet the famous Sarah Mardini who, fleeing Syria in 2015 with her sister Yusra, saved 18 refugees on the journey from Turkey to Greece by swimming with their waterlogged dinghy to the shores of Lesbos. Seán never pretended to change the world. But he was doing little bits to help, and that was what mattered. At least that’s what he thought—until he ended up in jail.

In late August 2018 came the news that Seán and Sarah had been arrested by the Greek police on accusations of money laundering, people smuggling, and espionage. I was confused, then shocked, then angry. The more I read about the case and spoke to Séan’s fellow volunteers, the more it appeared that the charges were unfounded. This was confirmed in a recent report by Human Rights Watch and also by his eventual release on bail earlier this month—after more than 100 days in jail.

But his case provides further evidence that more and more citizens across Europe are being harassed and threatened with jail and fines for providing humanitarian aid. That none of these cases are ever proven only underlines the absurdity of the situation.

Instead of investing in safe and regular alternative pathways for migrants to come to Europe, and working on the root causes that lead refugees to flee their countries, European leaders are going after ordinary citizens who are helping those in need. And EU law allows for this punishment.

With everything that Europe is facing and our society needs us to do, I couldn’t believe what was happening to my friend. I decided to join as campaign coordinator of the European Citizens’ Initiative #WelcomingEurope, which calls for the end of the criminalisation of humanitarian aid by EU Member States. Working on the campaign, I found out that Seán was not the first volunteer to be arrested for giving assistance.

Hungarian pastor Gábor Iványi attempted to donate food and water to asylum seekers, only to become the first criminalised volunteer in Hungary since the “Stop Soros” bill last June. In France, Benoît Ducos drove a pregnant woman who was about to give birth to the nearest hospital and was thereby put under investigation. And 21-year-old Loan Torondel was convicted for defamation after tweeting a photograph of policemen standing over a migrant who was sitting on his sleeping bag in the informal camps in Calais.

I hoped that through mobilising others to support this European Citizens’ Initiative, I could at least contribute a tiny bit to bringing about change, using my voice as a citizen to urge lawmakers to ensure the rights of those providing humanitarian assistance. Although the judge initially refused to release both Séan and Sarah from their pre-trial detention—despite the fact that they posed no danger—they eventually prevailed on their second appeal for bail. Their appeals were supported by a joint letter signed by 59 civil society organisations, protests in several European cities, and rising media awareness of their case. These efforts made it clear to the court that citizens would not let these politically motivated accusations stand, nor would they accept the court’s unfair treatment of humanitarian aid workers.

Fatalism and defeatism are not the solution. Nor do they reflect the voices across the continent asking for a welcoming Europe. Citizens are mobilising. Even the European Parliament has taken first steps towards ending the criminalisation of humanitarian aid. This is a proof that those calling for a progressive and inclusive Europe are far from being the vanishing minority that Eurosceptics and nationalists claim.

Europe is at a crossroads. We must decide how this moment will be remembered in history. Our Union is founded “on the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights”. Whether these values will prevail is a question now put before us.

The fight is only the beginning. When Seán left prison, he brought us two messages. First, “our release signals that providing humanitarian support is not criminal and we certainly will continue to advocate for this”. Indeed, Seán still faces a trial, and other volunteers across Europe remain in similarly precarious legal situations. We citizens are still needed.

Secondly, Seán insists that “it is important not to frame humanitarianism as heroic. By elevating humanitarianism to heroism, not helping is in danger of becoming normalised. But you’ve proven that help is the rule not the exception”. Seán is right. Humanitarianism is not extraordinary, but rather what we Europeans believe in. And help is not just “the rule”; it is also our right and our freedom. As European citizens, it is time to set the course of history and reclaim our welcoming Europe by saying loud and clear that #HelpIsNoCrime.

By Laura Daïeff

Photo by Margarita Mavromichalis