At least 117 people criminalised for helping migrants in Europe in 2023

Between January and December 2023, at least 117 people faced judicial proceedings in the EU for acting in solidarity with migrants. The majority were charged with facilitation of entry, stay or transit or migrant smuggling (depending on how the crime is defined in the national legislation). The figures stem from media monitoring of different national news outlets conducted by the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) throughout 2023.

This is most likely an undercount, as statistical and official data concerning those who are being accused, charged, or convicted for smuggling and related offences is often lacking. Many cases go unreported by the media or because people fear retaliation, especially migrants themselves. In addition, some cases reported by the media might not have been detected by our alert system.

Nonetheless, this data confirm a concerning, ongoing trend observed in previous reports. At least 102 people were criminalised in the EU in 2022. At least 89 people were criminalised between January 2021 and March 2022, and at least 158 were accused of smuggling between 2015 and 2019.

Michele LeVoy, Director of PICUM, said: “These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg of what is actually happening in the European Union. Current trends are likely to worsen as EU proposals to fight migrant smuggling fail to include a binding exemption of humanitarian acts from potential criminalisation.

Our media monitoring found that the majority of people criminalized were in southern Europe: 74 people were criminalised in Italy and 31 people in Greece. People were also reported criminalized in other countries: six in Poland, three in Malta; two in Latvia and one in Cyprus (there may also be cases in other countries that went undetected in our alert system).  Nearly 60% of people were criminalized for solidarity with migrants on land, and roughly 40% at sea.

Among those criminalised, forty-six people were criminalised for rescuing or helping migrants in distress at sea. Nineteen were criminalised for providing shelter to migrants; 18 for promoting inclusive policies at local level; 17 for trying to stop a deportation, and eight people were criminalized for providing migrants with food, water, and clothes. For example, In one case from Latvia, two citizens were charged with facilitating irregular entry simply because they gave food and water to migrants stranded at the border with Belarus.

The average length of the proceedings is 3.5 years, but many last even longer. In one case from Italy, former Riace mayor Mimmo Lucano, with international renown for the projects on the inclusion of migrants in his village, spent five years in house arrest and under investigation. In another case from Greece, 24 human rights activists, including volunteer lifeguards Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini, have been undergoing legal proceedings for more than four years for charges brought against them for rescuing asylum-seekers at sea. While part of the charges were finally dropped in 2023, the felony charges are still unresolved.   

Among the 42 individuals whose trials were closed in 2023, 40 people received an acquittal. Even if they end in an acquittal, trials still have heavy consequences on people’s finances, personal life, and psychological wellbeing.

People criminalised for crossing borders irregularly

Not only solidarity with migrants is being criminalised under counter-smuggling legislation, but also the very act of migrating. According to our monitoring, between January 2023 and December 2023, at least 76 migrants in Italy, Greece and Spain were criminalised for the sole act of crossing borders irregularly.

At least seven of the people criminalised in 2023 were children at the time of the facts.

LeVoy said: “The criminalisation of solidarity with migrants is deeply tied with the criminalisation of migration itself. These are not two separate issues but are in fact a continuum of restrictive migration policies that make border crossing unsafe and create a hostile environment against those who are considered to have entered in an irregular manner.”

Fifty-three migrants were charged with facilitation of irregular entry for actions including driving a boat, being on boat (12 people charged), and resisting a pushback at sea (9 people charged). The accusations fail to capture the underlying motivations behind these actions, which often include reuniting with family members, covering the cost of the passage, seeking livelihoods, and supporting others. In one case from Greece, a 45-year-old Egyptian man was sentenced to 280 years in prison under the accusation of human trafficking, smuggling, and belonging to a criminal organisation simply because he helped steer the vessel he was in with other 476 migrants, including his son.

Administrative sanctions and non-judicial harassment of NGOs

Our media monitoring also recorded at least 15 cases of non-judicial harassment, concerning 17 individuals and 12 NGOs. These cases are in addition to the 117 described above.

In one third of the cases, the person or the organisation concerned was issued an administrative fine for their actions in support to migrants. Other non-judicial forms of harassment included confiscation of material, police harassment or detention, threats by private groups, restrictions of access to certain locations and to people of concern, and defamation.

In one case from France, three members of the NGO Bidasoa Etorkinekin were taken into police custody in the city of Urrugne for one day after sheltering migrants in a local reception centre. In Italy, search and rescue ships Geo Barents, Humanity 1, Sea Watch Aurora, and Open Arms were all impounded and their crews fined several thousand euros for violating the Italian Legislative Decree 15/2023 that prohibits multiple rescues at sea in one trip. In Cyprus, equality NGO KISA has been facing harassment and attacks for years, including a bombing attack in their offices in January 2024.