AYS Special 2019/2020: On trial for saving lives — Criminalization of solidarity

From Greece to Italy, from Serbia and Bosnia to Croatia, activists and volunteers have been intimidated…

Are You Syrious?
Jan 1, 2020 · 12 min read
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Charged for providing humanitarian assistance on Greek islands: The case of Salam Aldeen

It was the last day of 2019. Salam Aldeen, an Iraqi-Danish rescue worker who dedicated almost five years of his life to supporting refugees on Lesvos, was paying final goodbye to people in Moria camp. For many of them, Salam and his Team Humanity were the only ray of hope in dire conditions of the overcrowded island. Some of them, Salam personally rescued from the Aegean sea. He also documented violations of their basic human rights — something that’s being held against him by the local police.

“The authorities on the island don’t want me and our Organization to help refugees. After 16 days in jail without any proof that I did anything wrong, they let me go for only three days so I can pack my things and leave. This island has its own rules and the authorities do whatever they want to”, Salam said on 31 December, few hours before leaving Lesvos, where he served since 2015.

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Salam spent 16 days in detention without formal charges. Photo: Team Humanity

They docked at the safest port in Italy: cases of captains Carola Rackete and Pia Klemp

Around 700 nautical miles west of Lesvos, on the small island Lampedusa, German captain Carola Rackete faced questioning by an Italian prosecutor over allegedly aiding illegal immigration. She was arrested on 29 June for entering Italy’s Lampedusa port despite a veto imposed by Matteo Salvini, far-right Minister of the Interior, and pushing a Coast Guard boat out of the way to land 40 rescued people who needed medical and psychological assistance after being stranded at sea for over two weeks.

Three days after the incident, a judge overturned the arrest, saying Carola had merely acted to save lives. However, she is still the subject of two investigations — one for entering Italian waters despite a direct order to stop, and another for allegedly aiding illegal immigration. If convicted, she could also face up to 15 years in prison.

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Carola Rackete was escorted to detention immediately after docking a ship with 40 survivors.

Hundreds of people have drowned while Sea-Watch 3 was unfairly held in port by Italian authorities. But now, we are finally able to set sail for our next rescue mission. We will never stop assisting people in distress in the Mediterranean, even despite the political games played all around us and the obstacles thrown at us,” said Johannes Bayer, Head of Mission on board Sea-Watch 3.

Carola Rackete is not the only captain to be charged for conducting search and rescue missions. Her colleague Pia Klemp is among 10 people facing up to 20 years for “aiding illegal immigration”.

“We simply did, what had to be done: rescuing people where they can be rescued. Never should that be subject to a political discussion”, said Captain Pia in her emotional TEDx speech.

Why was she giving a TEDx talk instead of sailing with her crew? She would be immediately imprisoned, she explained, if she saved another refugee life. If she saved an EU passport holder, nothing would happen to her. Their court case might linger for years, effectively preventing them from continuing their life-saving work, and intimidating others from doing so.

Intimidated and pushed out by Balkan authorities: The cases of No Name Kitchen and the BVM

As eyes of the international press were set on scandalous SAR cases, criminalization was silently happening in the Balkans, where independent volunteer teams were pushed out of border areas by Serbian and Bosnian police. Over the past years, many small volunteer groups have been present in Belgrade and Sarajevo, but also in smaller areas around Šid and Subotica in Northern Serbia, as well as Bihać and Velika Kladuša in Northern Bosnia. They have been there to provide basic necessities such as clothes and food and to document push-backs from Croatia and Hungary — something that was being held against them. By the end of 2019, only the Spanish NGO No Name Kitchen and individual members of the international Border Violence Monitoring Network, dedicated to human rights monitoring, succeeded in keeping their presence in northern parts of Serbia and Bosnia.

“We received constant offensive comments about our countries of origin and particularly, verbal sexist attacks such as “You have all the nationalities to choose from. Look how beautiful they are! You can choose the one you like best for tonight” — comments made between the group of police officers in Serbian, but which one of the volunteers could understand because she speaks the language. They also threatened to send us to prison if we did not follow their indications”, NNK volunteer told us.

Throughout 2019, they were severely targeted by the local authorities, who entered their premises on multiple occasions. Both Serbian and Bosnian authorities bullied their volunteers, threatened with criminal proceedings and entered their premises in order to scare them out of the country. In Bosnia, they went even further by confiscating their Spanish, German and USA travel documents without explanation or translation.

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An American volunteer explaining how Bosnian police took her documents without due procedure. Photo: AYS

Facing prison and the end of work in Croatia: the case of Dragan Umičević and AYS

Across the border, in Croatia, AYS volunteer Dragan Umičević is still facing charges for alleged assisting of the illegal border crossing, after being brought to misdemeanor court on dubious and largely fabricated evidence provided by the Croatian Ministry of Interior.

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Dragan was one of the first volunteers to help refugees in the Balkan route. Now he is facing imprisonment for connecting a family of asylum seekers to the nearest police station, so they could petition for asylum.
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Direct consequences of public defamation of human rights defenders. Photo: AYS

European legal context: overly vague and not in harmony with UN standards

The UN Declaration on human rights defenders states that everyone (individual or group) has the right to promote human rights and fundamental freedom. The state has the responsibility to provide an enabling environment to implement those activities and “the state shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, discrimination or arbitrary action against the exercise of their rights”. Regrettably, several laws and actions in different Member States are at odds with the UN Declaration.

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Application of the option provided in Article 1(2) of the Directive not to criminalise facilitation of entry or transit when carried out for humanitarian purposes. Source: EC

When civil society is effectively (self-)silenced and its accountability role undermined, policies to combat migrant smuggling may be overused and give rise to serious breaches of the EU’s founding values, notably the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights. The Facilitators’ Package is essentially a bad law that is not fit for purpose in the evolving political and legal context of the EU, explicitly wrote the authors of the study .

In October 2019, the Commission acknowledged that a follow-up to the evaluation of the Facilitators Package is needed, in particular as regards non-criminalization of humanitarian assistance to migrants. However, the substance of the Package remains vague and open to arbitrary interpretation by the authorities.

If the Commission fails to clarify its directives, they might be used against European citizens and NGOs who are actually upholding the laws and values of European Union. Without humanitarian search and rescue missions at sea, Mediterranean will be turned into an even bigger graveyard. Without anyone to monitor access to asylum procedures, thousands of new victims will be pushed off of European soil into the hands of real smugglers and criminal networks, warned Milena Zajović from AYS during her intervention in the European Parliament.

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Are You Syrious?

Written by

Daily news digests from the field, mainly for volunteers and refugees on the route, but also for journalists and other parties.

Are You Syrious?

Daily news digests from the field, mainly for volunteers and refugees on the route, but also for journalists and other parties.

Are You Syrious?

Written by

Daily news digests from the field, mainly for volunteers and refugees on the route, but also for journalists and other parties.

Are You Syrious?

Daily news digests from the field, mainly for volunteers and refugees on the route, but also for journalists and other parties.

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