Handcuffing the helpers | Part 1

As migration is increasingly treated as a security matter rather than a humanitarian concern, migrants and those trying to help them are being regarded as criminals. Aid groups say the lives of migrants — and the trust needed to help them — are at stake.

Andrew Connelly

Victor Lacken

Pierre Chassany

On the French–Italian border last year, a volunteer medical practitioner rescued a pregnant Nigerian woman struggling along a snowy Alpine path and took her to the nearest hospital. He was investigated by French police for assisting illegal entry.

And in the United States, a volunteer who provided food, water and shelter to migrants who crossed a deadly stretch of the Arizona desert is on trial.

Each case is different but represents a growing trend: while attempting to discourage migration, authorities are not just targeting migrants but also those offering them various types of humanitarian aid.

“At least 16 NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and associations have been affected by the formal criminalisation or investigation of their volunteers,” states a 2019 report by Research Social Platform on Migration and Asylum funded by the European Union (EU). The report found 49 ongoing cases of investigation and criminal prosecution across 11 EU countries involving 158 people.

“Independent judges have found no sound evidence for convictions in most of these cases,” notes a recent statement signed by 102 NGOs, including the European Union Red Cross Office in Brussels, Belgium. “This suggests that prosecutions are often being politically used to deter solidarity and create a hostile environment for migrants.”

Proponents of these laws and prosecutions argue that they are necessary to stem what they see as an unsustainable influx of migrants. They often claim the actions of humanitarian organizations, including life-saving rescues, are encouraging more migrants to come.

Since 2015, search-and-rescue craft operated by various NGOs have rescued thousands of migrants but have increasingly found their vessels impounded and their staff arrested or accused of ‘colluding with smugglers’.

Prosecutions are often being politically used to deter solidarity and create a hostile environment for migrants.

Lives at stake

In the meantime, lives are being lost. From January to October 2019, more than 1,000 migrants have drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that, unless search-and-rescue operations resume, refugee boat journeys will become more deadly.

The challenge, experts say, is that governments increasingly see migration as a security issue rather than a humanitarian concern. Authorities in many parts of the world are increasingly invoking security policies, anti-terrorism goals and anti-trafficking legislation to justify new criminal laws, as well as a range of new demands on humanitarian groups. One example are requests for personal data on migrants collected by humanitarian organizations as part of their work helping migrants.

“Some authorities think that because the Red Cross is implementing some activities linked to asylum reception, that they should have access to the data we hold on the people we are helping,” says Anaïs Faure Atger, head of the migration unit at the Red Cross EU’s office. “But this isn’t how it works nor how it should work.”

A perilous path

Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies turn down such requests because compliance would jeopardize their efforts. After all, migrants are already navigating a perilous path full of people that they must rely on — even if they cannot all be trusted.

Consider the situation of Amer Al-Hussein, who left Idlib, Syria with his wife and their four children in early 2019. Fearing the sea, they attempted to walk across the Greek–Turkish land border with smugglers. They were supposed to meet a man on the other side. “But he didn’t appear and we stayed there for five days,” he told Red Cross Red Crescent magazine. “My youngest daughter was becoming dehydrated.”

The family ultimately ended up at a transit centre on the border of Greece and North Macedonia to await the outcome of their asylum claim. “It’s not easy to be in Syria,” Al-Hussein says. “But the nights we spent in the woods [near the Greek–Turkish border] I was scared for my children. It was raining and we didn’t have anything over our heads.”
In this context, a familiar trusted emblem can save your life. “If I see the Red Cross or Crescent sign it gives me confidence that somebody will take care of me,” he says. “They will at least provide water, food, clothes and medical aid.”

Amer Al-Hussein, who left Idlib, Syria with his wife and their four children in early 2019

If I see the Red Cross or Crescent sign it gives me confidence that somebody will take care of me.

An anti-migrant atmosphere

For Red Cross National Societies in Europe, maintaining this trust means walking a clear, humanitarian line in a very tense political and legal atmosphere. In northern France, police carry out regular evictions of migrant camps, dispersing the inhabitants and making them harder for aid groups to access.

“The Red Cross is a very well-known emblem and symbol of protection and so we must ensure that it is not associated with police actions,” says Florent Clouet, who coordinates migration response for the French Red Cross. “But even more importantly, we need to continually show that we are there for everyone. We treat all communities in the same manner.”

Questions about the impartiality of aid are playing out on other fronts as various forms of humanitarian and development funding (the European Union Trust Fund for Africa, for example) are largely linked to migration-management strategies that aim to prevent population movement towards Europe. Organizations that accept such funding in order to do important work could be seen as implementers of an anti-migrant agenda.

“It is critical to underline that our reason for engaging in a given humanitarian project is because there are needs, identified through a thorough needs assessment, not because of a political agenda,” Atger adds.

As humanitarian organizations navigate these new challenges, fundamental elements of treaty law (such as refugee law and the Law of the Sea, which requires ships to save vessels in distress) are being lost. Humanitatian NGOs argue that states must both respect their treaty obligations and carefully revise anti-trafficking laws in order to make clear distinctions between smuggling and acts of humanity.

People are taking dangerous routes and enor¬mous risks because there are no legal options for them to reach the EU and seek protection,” says Atger. “We have to start treating the question of migration as a humanitarian, not a criminal, concern.”

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