Row over the ‘tar­get­ing’ of aid work­ers

EU is warned that traf­fick­ing laws are be­ing used to ob­struct hu­man­i­tar­ian work with refugees

The Observer - - NEWS - by Mark Townsend

Aid work­ers are be­ing tar­geted through­out Europe as coun­tries in­clud­ing the UK use laws aimed at traf­fick­ers and smug­glers to dis­cour­age hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­tiv­ity, a study claims.

A six- month in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Lon­don-based In­sti­tute of Race Relations doc­u­mented the pros­e­cu­tions of 45 in­di­vid­ual “hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­tors” un­der anti-smug­gling or immigration laws in 26 sep­a­rate ac­tions over the past two years. Ex­am­ples in­clude a 25-year- old Bri­tish vol­un­teer with a refugee sup­port group, who last Jan­uary sought to bring an Al­ba­nian mother and two chil­dren to the UK in the boot of her car so they could join their hus­band and fa­ther.

She was sen­tenced in March to 14 months in jail, al­though the sen­tence was sus­pended to take into ac­count her “mis­guided hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism”. UK law does not dis­tin­guish be­tween hu­man­i­tar­ian and com­mer­cial mo­tives in such pros­e­cu­tions, but does take such fac­tors into ac­count in sen­tenc­ing.

In Switzer­land, a 43-year-old woman known to refugees as Mother Teresa for her work in pro­vid­ing food for those stranded on the Ital­ian side of the bor­der, was sen­tenced in Septem­ber to a fine and a sus­pended 80- day jail term for help­ing un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren into the coun­try.

In France, Bri­tish vol­un­teers help­ing refugees in Calais have fre­quently been ha­rassed by the au­thor­i­ties. In Oc­to­ber 2015, for­mer Bri­tish sol­dier Rob Lawrie was ar­rested at the bor­der for hid­ing a four-year-old Afghan child in his van in re­sponse to her fa­ther’s pleas to take her to rel­a­tives in Leeds. Lawrie, from West York­shire, avoided jail af­ter a French court found him guilty of the lesser charge of en­dan­ger­ment rather than as­sist­ing il­le­gal en­try.

And in March this year three French and Bri­tish vol­un­teers with char­ity Roya Ci­toyenne were ar­rested for dis­tribut­ing food to mi­grants.

The 68-page IRR re­port chron­i­cles a cul­ture of crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion in which vol­un­teers for char­i­ties and aid groups, at­tempt­ing to fill the gaps in state pro­vi­sion, are tar­geted for pro­vid­ing food, shel­ter and clean wa­ter to mi­grants in in­for­mal en­camp­ments or on streets.

The EU’s bor­der force, Fron­tex, has ac­cused aid groups in­clud­ing Médecins Sans Fron­tières of co- op­er­at­ing with mi­grant traf­fick­ers in the Mediter­ranean. The re­port crit­i­cises se­nior Fron­tex of­fi­cials for “at­tempts to bully and dele­git­imise” NGO search and res­cue mis­sions in the Mediter­ranean.

The IRR’s vice- chair, Frances Web­ber, said: “Across the con­ti­nent, crim­i­nal laws de­signed to tar­get or­gan­ised smug­gling gangs and prof­i­teers are dis­torted and stretched to fit an anti-refugee, an­ti­hu­man­i­tar­ian agenda, and in the process crim­i­nalise de­cency it­self.”

This week the IRR will write to the Euro­pean com­mis­sion urg­ing it to re­assert sup­port for hu­man­i­tar­ian val­ues and pro­vide a manda­tory ex­emp­tion from crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion for hu­man­i­tar­ian groups. The let­ter warns that the fail­ure to pro­tect aid groups, refugee char­i­ties and hu­man­i­tar­ian or­gan­i­sa­tions rep­re­sents a “gulf be­tween law and moral­ity” in the poli­cies of EU mem­ber states.

The group says such crit­i­cism has emboldened far-right ac­tivists be­hind the high-pro­file sea cam­paign to dis­rupt ves­sels at­tempt­ing to as­sist refugees in the Mediter­ranean. A range of Is­lam­o­pho­bic anti-immigration groups, along with “alt-light” com­men­ta­tors such as Bre­it­bart News and Junge Frei­heit in Ger­many, joined the cam­paign.

Aus­trian in­te­rior min­is­ter Wolf­gang Sobotka has called for le­gal “pun­ish­ments” for sea res­cuers, and Ger­man in­te­rior min­is­ter Thomas de Maiz­ière has said NGO res­cue boats con­cealed their po­si­tions from coast­guards but switched on their lights to help refugee boats, claims de­nied by the NGOs.

IRR di­rec­tor Liz Fekete said: “There can be no doubt that the threat of pros­e­cu­tion hang­ing over search and res­cue NGOs and re­peated ver­bal de­nun­ci­a­tions by Euro­pean politi­cians have am­pli­fied the far right’s mes­sage.”

Ac­tivists from French far-right group Ligue du Midi re­cently ran­sacked the of­fices of a group in Montpelier that works with child mi­grants.

Mi­grants be­ing res­cued off the coast of Italy this sum­mer: anti-traf­fick­ing laws are of­ten used to tar­get aid work­ers.

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