European governments have done everything in their power to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from setting foot in their territories, even if it means breaking international laws and violating humanitarian principles.
Human rights defenders, particularly in the field of immigration and asylum, refuse to remain silent about the tragic humanitarian reality that thousands of migrants and asylum seekers face every day after being forced to flee their home countries due to wars and authoritarian regimes.
However, European countries have made the activists pay a price for their solidarity. Between 2015 and 2019, at least 158 people were formally investigated or prosecuted in 11 countries on charges of human trafficking, espionage, and affiliation with criminal organizations.
This is how humanity became a felony
When the so-called “asylum crisis” began in 2015, European hypocrisy manifested itself in the practice of various forms of intimidation and harassment of human rights organizations and activists, particularly those who took the initiative to support migrants and asylum seekers, such as volunteers, activists, NGOs, and family members of migrants, as well as journalists and paramedics.
The services that are considered illegal by some European countries include providing asylum seekers with food and shelter, raising awareness of their rights, tweeting, transporting children to police stations, alerting the Coast Guard of drownings, rescuing people at sea, and protecting migrants from deportation, either aerial or by land.
Rather than reviewing their policies or providing support for individual and civic efforts to save lives, countries such as Greece, Italy, Croatia, France, Malta, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have pursued punitive policies targeting caregivers and volunteers to obstruct their solidarity activities through defamation, criminal investigation, prosecution, imposition of legal fees and fines (up to €81,000), or entry ban.
In other cases, European authorities have taken even harsher measures against those who show solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers by holding them in pre-trial detention for months or sentencing them to prison for terms ranging from 25 years to life, based on charges that are inaccurate, unfair, and disproportionate with the act under criminal law.
To impose this reality, some European governments utilized legislation to combat human smuggling and terrorism, to direct charges related to espionage or facilitating the illegal entry of people, while other governments introduced new legislation to limit the programs and activities of institutions active in humanitarian work, immigration, and asylum.
In 2020, Greece imposed onerous conditions and requirements on the work of these organizations, infringing on the right to form and join associations.
The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, issued by the United Nations, guarantees “the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.”
In several cases, punitive measures imposed by European countries on activists and organizations have resulted in them ceasing to assist asylum seekers and migrants. This is due to the deteriorating working conditions and the transformation of the humanitarian work environment into a hostile environment rife with threats and risks.
Furthermore, having been subjected to legal prosecutions and repeated harassment, many of them were preoccupied with exonerating themselves and denying the charges levelled against them rather than defending the rights of refugees and migrants.
The worst effect of these punitive measures is that they exacerbate social divisions around migrants and asylum seekers by reinforcing the negative image of them as criminals who cause chaos and social and security problems in the country, weakening people's moral or humanitarian dimension toward the refugee issue in general.
Insistence on border violence policy
When assessing the disturbing reality imposed by European cruelty, it is not an exaggeration to say that Europe has become a partner of the authoritarian regimes that have displaced hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers from their countries to escape persecution and dire living conditions.
Although European policies cannot be equated with the abuses committed by these regimes, statistics on missing people and deaths of asylum seekers and migrants show that both sides push people to the same fate—death.
European countries’ repression of the people and organizations that help migrants and asylum seekers not only attempts to confront volunteers with courts, financial burdens, and doubts about what they offer for the sake of humanity but also attempts to divert the public’s attention away from Europe's role in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. All of this is done to restrict immigration operations to Europe.
The real flaw lies in Europe's immigration and asylum policies, which are exemplified by the systematic border violence it has perpetrated against refugees for years. The policies intimidate those who monitor and document Europe’s failure to secure safe humanitarian corridors for migrants, improve refugee reception conditions, and investigate all violations committed against refugees on its soil, such as forcible returns and delays in response to relief calls.
It is unfortunate that humanitarian principles are mixed with political ends. However, this should not lead to despair or the abandonment of humanitarian work and support for those who deserve it, because gaps in global systems will always exist. This emphasizes the importance of our role in filling these gaps and building bridges for everyone in need of help and compassion.