Help Is No Crime: People share their stories of being accused, intimidated and punished for helping migrants

Individuals and members of organisations who provide humanitarian assistance and help to undocumented migrants frequently face intimidation, accusations and punishments across Europe, due to policies which prohibit the ‘facilitation of irregular migration’.

These stories of migrant supporters aim to show what these policies mean in practice for civil society actors as well as for migrants and the impact of criminalising solidarity.

The testimonies were gathered as part of the research project “Anti-Smuggling Policies and their Intersection with Humanitarian Assistance and Social Trust”, mandated by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and coordinated by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and PICUM in cooperation with Queen Mary University London (QMUL).

We continue to gather testimonies which you can share with us confidentially. We will publish them without names or details that might put individuals at risk. You can share your stories in written or visual formats (photo, video) by sending them to Elisabeth Schmidt-Hieber, PICUM Communications Officer at: elisabeth@picum.org

You can also share the testimonies within your networks and on social media with the hash tag: #HelpIsNoCrime

Greece: "We were taken to the local police station and held for several hours"

We were personally ‘detained’ (taken to the local police station and held for several hours) by police authorities simply for being present during the eviction of an informal camp, after having worked with the same population for 5 months. There are countless instances of police obstructing access to asylum-seeker/refugee/migrant populations for civil society actors looking to provide any kind of service.

In response to the barriers set up by local law enforcement and ministry policies, we changed our operations to outside official camps (rather than navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth constructed by local policies).

Access to the refugee population is something that has become increasingly difficult, and poses a huge risk to the work that we do.”

– Service provider (medical aid, legal aid, shelter etc.), at points where migrants first arrive (border areas, hot spots, sea ports)-

France: Police intimidation discourages volunteers from staying

“There are smear campaigns against volunteers, especially the case of two men (volunteers) accused of arson in the camp and brought to court when they were actually helping extinguish the fires.”

-Volunteer at the camp in Calais

Greece: We were saving lives every day… now there is a possibility that I will be facing life in jail

“I am the founder of an NGO called Team Humanity. But before 2015 I was just like what most of us would consider to be a “normal guy”. I had a job, a home, a family and friends… what more could a person want?

But in September 2015 I saw a picture that flooded the media and shocked the world, that picture was of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year old Syrian refugee who had died trying to get to safety in Greece.

That final picture of Aylan Kurdi played on my mind for days, and had left me thinking how could the world so easily dismiss his death… the death of an innocent child… he had committed no crimes other than having a family that wanted to give him a better chance at life, and to avoid growing up in a war zone.

I had to do something. So I went to Greece and started helping. I met good and trustworthy people. Selfless people, who just wanted to help out others in their time of need.

So we began to save lives… we put our lives on hold so that we could ensure that these refugees could keep theirs. We worked tirelessly around the clock, patrolling the coast day and night in the hope we might be able to help refugees crossing the Aegean Sea to safety.

Some of you may be thinking why would these people need help? The matter is quite simple… Violent rapids, freezing temperatures all to be endured by men, women, children and el-der-ly in cheap rubber dingys… these boats weren’t fit for travel in the sea…

Nonetheless, we persisted with our work saving lives every day… to the best of our ability. But sometimes this wasn’t enough. I have held dying people in my arms as their bodies turned cold. And it’s a harsh reality to know that some of the last words they said were to me!  These words were often: “Will i survive?” or “please help me”.

I held the dead bodies of innocent babies and children in my arms. I have lost count of all the children that died in the sea and washed ashore. My team and I would spend over 6 hours digging graves and burying the ones who died crossing the sea on this dangerous journey to Lesvos. I have to live with that. But that’s not why I’m here. This kind of reality is common in the humanitarian lifestyle… the problem only begins here.

In our struggles to save people we decided to buy a boat, so that we could limit the amount of human life lost, as boats were sinking far out at sea and not even making it to the coast. We followed all the standard channels of approval and registered our boat with the port authorities…

It was the early hours of 14th January… around 2 am.

I was in my car patrolling when I got a notification by one of the Volunteer groups, that a boat was sinking at the south coast. However, no coordinates were provided. This meant the situation had just shifted from bad to worse… we knew people were in trouble but we didn’t know where exactly… these people might only have minutes to live… believe me it’s not a pleasant experience to watch someone drown in front of you… let alone thinking what it’s like to experience drowning.

Me and 4 other lifeguards immediately got ourselves ready, drove to the harbor, and went into the rescue boat and sailed off for search and rescue. We notified the Hellenic Coast Guard, who told me to contact them if we found the boat or its location. As I was sailing around, trying to find the sinking boat, suddenly a big military ship came towards us with high speed. It stopped us, and we were arrested.

The boat we were in at the time was the very same boat that we used 15 hours earlier to save 51 lives…. I fear to think what the fate of those people would have been, if we didn’t have the boat to begin with.

I was falsely accused of human smuggling without any evidence to prove it. I was in Greek waters and without any refugees on board my boat. But the authorities were quick to overlook this.

I spent 48 hours in jail, it makes my stomach turn to think how many refugees may have died in that time and how the power of the authorities could have been better used to save lives rather than in an attempt to ruin them.

After spending 48 hours in jail we each had to pay bail in order to be released. My bail was set at 10,000 euros. After my release, I was not allowed to leave Greece for one year and 8 months. In the meantime, I continued my humanitarian efforts on a variety of projects, providing displaced persons with food, clothing, shelter, and other humanitarian aid.

But the issue still remains that in May 2018 will be my trial and despite how preposterous their claims are…. there is a possibility that I will be facing life in jail. Life in jail for what? Saving lives, saving children from drowning?

…I see the world around us crying for help… and if others won’t respond to the cries then I implore you to help put this case to rest so I CAN. I believe in humanity … which is why I urge you to put yourself in my position and think… what would you do if you were being accused of something that completely goes against what you stand for…? Well this is how I feel when I am told I could be facing life in jail for trying to do the right thing and help people.

And even if the system were to fail me although I have faith that it won’t… my concern is not that I may spend the rest of my days behind bars over a fictitious claim but in fact it is that people are still dying right now and some people have the audacity to say that the bad days are over.

I implore you to listen to me and other grass root NGOs that have no other agenda other than to just help… the situation is very real in Lesvos and I don’t see it getting better any time soon unless we come together and help each other.

Right now… children are sleeping with their families in small, thin, wet summer tents almost freezing to death as the cold of winter is drawing closer day by day…

I want to thank, friends, supporters of my NGO Team Humanity, and lastly everyone who has helped in this crisis; every single volunteer who made sacrifices for the sake of others.  Without them an even bigger collapse would have happened in Europe.

… I ask you to please help me… for the sake of humanity.

Thank you.”

– Salam Aldeen, Co-founder of Team Humanity (teamhumanity.eu) –

Italy: Intimidation on the street, in police cars and at police stations

“Since summer 2015 when I started getting involved in Ventimiglia, there has been an increasing criminalization of solidarity. It was not possible to get closer to people arriving in the station, there would be police everywhere and, being a small place where everyone knows each others faces, they could stop you just because you would be walking around the station.

There has been intimidation (verbal, sexually charged for women) on the street, in police cars, in police office, beatings (several occasions, especially in the summer 2016), gassing people and detention in the police office for all night for just passing by on the street (maybe too close to the station, or to migrants’ gathering areas).

Local media coverage is demonizing groups/individuals for assisting migrants, harassment by certain parts of civil society (right-wing members) and unreasonable fines/detention of people without a judiciary approval.”

-Individual, not affiliated with any organisation

Greece: “I was accused of espionage”

“After doing volunteer work on Lesbos and Chios in March-May 2016, I was leaving Chios by ferry and the Greek police (on Chios) arrested me for making a photo of an undercover policeman who was checking ferry tickets for people boarding the ferry to Piraeus. Next day at the court I was accused of espionage against Greece. After two days arrest, I was released on bail while they kept my camera, computer etc.

Several months later (in fall 2016) the accusation for being a spy was withdrawn but the police in Chios still have my expensive equipment (camera, computer etc.) and my Greek lawyer told me that they will discuss if I can get back this equipment … I think the main reason for these terrible (false) accusations against me was that I made the photo of the undercover police in Chios while they did something that for me looked like a ‘check point’ where the intention was to stop refugees from travelling from Chios to Piraeus.”

– Volunteer

Hungary: Government campaigns spread hate

“Due to the government’s xenophobic hate campaigns in the past two years, those assisting asylum seekers are looked upon with suspicion. Relevant authorities usually refuse offers from volunteer groups to provide services or aid, access to asylum seekers is severely restricted.

The few organisations and grassroots groups assisting irregular migrants and refugees/beneficiaries of international protection are constantly used as a scapegoat both in by government officials and pro-government media outlets. A ‘national consultation’, initiated by the government, suggests a legal ban on ‘promoting irregular migration’ – an accusation used against the assisting groups by government officials.”

– Employee of a civil society organisation

Greece: Detained for reporting police abuse to the ombudsman

“There is increased harassment of legal teams, increased harassment of foreigners, increased harassment of local solidarity groups…

Two of my attorneys and myself, and one of our interpreters have been detained or required to appear for questioning at the local police station for having brought complaints of police abuse to the ombudsman.”

– Volunteer providing legal aid

Italy: “All the policies work together impeding regular assistance to migrants.”

“The policies that require punishment of assistance to irregular migrants are local policies, in general, set out by mayors in borders cities. However, these policies are supported by national policies, which do not give sufficient assistance to migrants. Finally, the EU policies, through the Dublin Convention, do not allow migrants to cross the borders. Then, all the policies work together impeding regular assistance to migrants.”

– Volunteer of a civil society organisation

Greece: “Only one arrest was for a justifiable offence”

“To my knowledge only one arrest was for a justifiable offence (possession of drugs). Many others revolved around things such as possession of small knives, something which if applied over the country as whole would serve to criminalise hundreds of thousands of chefs, handymen, decorators and barbecue enthusiasts nationwide. Police even faked the evidence by exaggerating the lengths of at least one knife used.

I distributed contact details to every volunteer under my care, at the time, of their country’s embassy in case of arrest.”

– Volunteer

Italy: Police take away tents and other supplies

“Police comes to informal camps and take away tents and other supplies such as blankets etc. and identifies volunteers threatening them with accusations such as ‘complicity in illegal immigration’.

Identifications of migrants and volunteers are happening more frequently and more and in an unfriendly and threatening way”

– Volunteer of a civil society organisation

Greece: The police would wake people up by kicking them and remove all sleeping bags and tents that we had distributed

“I worked as a volunteer lawyer in Thessaloniki (Greece) for 6 months. My job was to provide legal assistance to asylum seekers, including preparation for asylum interviews. Legal assistance, although in theory available to all, is highly lacking, even at the official camps.

When trying to do my job, I faced many difficulties imposed by the authorities. I was not allowed in the camps because I did not belong to a registered organisation (almost no organisation is registered because the registration process takes around 2 years if it is successful) so I had to sneak in to reach my clients or meet them outside the camp.

Asylum seekers have the right to be accompanied by a legal counsellor or a social worker to their interviews. Despite that, I got often denied entry to the Asylum Office without justification and they had to go in alone. The same occurred frequently when visiting people in detention centres.

I also provided legal assistance to those that have fallen through the cracks of the humanitarian response mechanism: the Afghans and Pakistanis living in abandoned buildings in the city because they do not have access to the camps. They received absolutely no official aid and thus relied on volunteer groups that were self-organised to provide food, medical aid and legal assistance to those living in harsh conditions and sleeping rough.

The police, however, made it very difficult for us volunteers to work. They would come when we were doing food distribution and arrest volunteers during three hours to check our ID documents (most of us were EU citizens). They would also remove the plates from our cars and even from the ambulance. They would come very early in the morning, wake the people from the building up by kicking them and remove all their sleeping bags and tents that we had distributed.

We had to modify the way we worked in order to avoid problems with the police. We started doing the distributions away from the building to not attract their attention and, with the same purpose, we removed the portable toilets we had installed in the abandoned building. In the camps, I often had to meet people outside them, under the boiling sun. As for the access to the asylum interviews, there was not much I could do so I filed complaints to the Ombudsman.”

– Volunteer

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