Over the last five years, at least 250 people have been charged in 14 countries for showing support and solidarity to migrants, according to data compiled by Open Democracy.
This number has risen sharply in the last 18 months with the highest number of cases found in Italy, Greece, Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Denmark. The highest number of arrests were recorded in Italy and France where far right parties hold power locally and nationally.
Far right politicians such as Marie Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy have made anti-migrant sentiments a hallmark of their politics. Salvini, in particular, is known for targeting those who “facilitate illegal migration”.
In 2018 alone, at least 100 people (double that of 2017) were arrested for providing food, shelter or transport to migrants without legal papers. Elderly women, firefighters and priests were among those charged, according to the report.
In the US, an aid volunteer, Scott Warren, is on trial and facing 20 years in prison on “smuggling” charges for providing water, food, clean clothes and beds to two undocumented migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.
The Open Democracy report states that not only have people been arrested for providing humanitarian support to migrants, but at least 22 were apprehended for disrupting deportations in a number of countries. Three more were charged with crimes after documenting abuse or harassment of migrants.
“Open Democracy’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 Migration Policy Group in Brussels.
The cases were documented by NGOs and activist groups as well as news reports, records from researchers and interviews from across Europe.
Many countries across the EU have criminalised any actions that could be construed as the “facilitation of irregular entry and stay”. Open Democracy said these laws, designed to deter human smugglers, were being used against humanitarian actors including search and rescue boats and volunteers.
“Punishing or criminalising people who help other people is something that violates all human rights conventions since the World War II. This is not something that can be tolerated,” said Spanish human rights lawyer Paula Schmid Porras.
In Malta, the Captain of the MV Lifeline, Captain Claus Peter Reisch was taken to court over claims he didn’t have the necessary registration and license for the migrant rescue vessel. Reisch was later fined €10,000 for operating a vessel which was not properly registered.
The Maltese government also came under fire for impounding Sea Watch, a Dutch-flagged ship that they claimed had issues with its paperwork. The NGO stated that there were no such issues and that the impouding of the vessel was part of a political game.
The vessel was finally allowed to leave Malta in October 2018, after being unlawfully detained for over three months.
Earlier this year, Maltese authorities filed terrorism charges against three teenage migrants for hijacking a small commercial tanker that rescued them just off the coast of Libya. The minors who were among 108 Africans including people suffering “clear signs of torture” allegedly forced the crew to take them to Malta instead of back to Libya.
Under international law, people rescued in international waters cannot be returned to a place where their lives are in danger. Both the United Nations and the EU have acknowledged that Libya is not safe.
The UN has called for Maltese authorities to drop terrorism against the youths aged 15, 16 and 19.
A rise in far right sentiment has also been held accountable for the recent murder of an African migrant in Malta “because he was black”.
Two Armed Forces of Malta soldiers are facing charges for the drive-by murder of Lassana Cisse, and the shooting of two other migrants. They are also suspected to have carried out a hit and run incident on the same stretch of road some months before, that left another migrant with serious injuries.