This essay, on the criminalisation of solidarity with undocumented migrants, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 16 June 2019, under the headline ‘Are only certain kinds of people deemed worthy of our compassion?’
When is a Good Samaritan not a Good Samaritan? When he or she helps someone undeserving of our humanity
In Arizona on 11 June, a jury was unable to reach a verdict on Scott Daniel Warren, a college lecturer accused of conspiracy to transport and harbour migrants after providing them with food and shelter. He faced up to 20 years in jail. He may still do if there’s a retrial.
Meanwhile, in Sicily, Pia Klemp, the German captain of the boat Sea-Watch 3, was charged with assisting in illegal immigration after rescuing migrants in distress in the Mediterranean. She, too, faces up to 20 years in prison.
Warren and Klemp are the latest victims of a disturbing trend that has gone almost unnoticed: the threat by the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to put on trial anyone who provides rescue or humanitarian help for migrants.
An investigation by the website openDemocracy suggests that over the past five years at least 250 people in 14 European countries have been arrested or charged for providing food, shelter, transport or other support to migrants without legal papers. Cases include Martine Landry, a 73-year-old Frenchwoman who helped two 15-year-old Guinean asylum seekers, taking them to a police station to register. She was charged with ‘having aided the entry of two foreign minors in an irregular situation’, but was eventually acquitted.
Then there’s Dragan Umičević a retired Croatian army officer and a volunteer with the organisation AYS, which provides help for refugees. In March last year, AYS was contacted by a group of Afghan refugees who had entered Croatia from Serbia. He, in turn, contacted the police and accompanied the refugees to the police station to help them with their asylum claims. Umičević was charged with aiding migrants by helping them across the border. The case fell apart when GPS data showed that he had always been on Croatian territory. Nevertheless, Umičević was found guilty of ‘unwitting negligence’ and fined 60,000 kunas (around £7,000).
Lise Ramslog, a 70-year-old Danish woman, was charged with people smuggling after giving a lift to the Swedish border to two young immigrant couples, with a small child and a newborn baby. She was fined 25,000 Danish krone (£3,000).
There have been similar cases in America. Warren is a member of the faith-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths. In January, four members were convicted of ‘abandoning personal property’ in a wildlife refuge after they left water jugs in the desert to help migrants. ‘If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal,’ said No More Deaths volunteer Catherine Gaffney, ‘what humanity is left in the law of this country?’
In both Europe and America, the authorities claim that aid for migrants acts as a ‘pull factor’, increasing the numbers willing to risk a dangerous journey. The idea that someone treks across the Sahara, through war-torn Libya and into a rubber dinghy to brave a sea that has become the graveyard for at least 30,000 others attempting that same journey, on the off-chance that they might meet a rescue ship, or sets off on an arduous march through Central America and faces the perils of a life-sapping desert because they are convinced they will find a jug of water at the end, stretches credulity. Many studies have, indeed, shown that rescue ships on the Mediterranean do not increase numbers of migrants, but abandoning rescue attempts increases the number of deaths.
The authorities are deliberately seeking to erase the distinction between people trafficking, human smuggling and acts of solidarity; to suggest that providing food and water, or rescuing someone from drowning, is of the same character as coercing people across borders to exploit them as forced labour or sex workers. It’s a perversion of the legal system and a warping of our moral sensibility.
It’s an approach that suggests that only certain kinds of people are deserving of humanitarian aid. Had Warren been helping Americans or Klemp rescuing Europeans, they would have been hailed as heroes. Their crime was to help the wrong kind of human beings – those wearing the wrong colour skin, believing in the wrong God, possessing the wrong passport or no passport at all.
That’s an obscene moral standard and one that would be unacceptable in any other context. Yet so successful has been the anti-migrant agenda of recent years that there is barely a discussion of such practices. It’s important to resist the criminalisation of solidarity, not just to defend migrants’ rights but also because it is corrosive of civil society and, in the words of the lawyer Frances Webber, helps outlaw ‘decency itself’.
The image is from ‘State of Exception’, a collaboration between artists Richard Barnes, anthropologist Jason de Leon and curator Amanda Krugliak which uses objects left in the desert by migrants to tell the story of their experiences.