Over 100 people criminalised for helping migrants in the EU in 2022

This blog summarises key findings from our media monitoring on the criminalisation of solidarity with migrants in Europe in 2022. The full report, including notes and sources, is available here.

Between January 2022 and December 2022, at least 102 people faced criminal or administrative proceedings in the EU for acts of solidarity with migrants. The figures stem from extensive media monitoring of national news conducted by PICUM and its network of volunteers over the past year.These findings illustrate a worrying trend in the EU. Previous research shows that at least 89 people were criminalised in the EU between January 2021 and March 2022, while at least 171 faced charges of facilitation of irregular entry, transit or stay in 13 EU Member States between 2015 and 2019.

Our media monitoring recorded 48 cases in Italy, 35 cases in Greece, twelve in Poland, and a total of seven cases reported in Malta, France, Germany, Spain and Lithuania. Criminalisation is an EU-wide phenomenon, and cases from other countries may have been undetected.

These numbers are likely to underrepresent what is actually happening in the European Union. On the one hand, statistical and official data concerning those who are being accused, charged or convicted for smuggling and related offences is largely absent. On the other hand, many cases go unreported because of fears of further victimisation, especially when those criminalised are migrants themselves. Other cases reported by the media might not have been detected by our alert system.

Besides judicial proceedings, human rights defenders and NGOs face several other forms of harassment. Our media monitoring recorded at least eleven different cases of non-judicial harassment, in addition to the 102 cases mentioned above, concerning at least four people and fifteen NGOs. One third of the cases concerned police harassment, while another third regarded restriction and entry difficulties, followed by confiscation of material, administrative fines, threats by right-wing private groups, defamation, and arrest.

France: ban on food distributions in Calais

In September 2020, local authorities in Calais, France, issued an order banning non-state mandated food distributions to migrants stranded in the woods. The order was renewed almost every month for two years. Authorities argued the ban had been put into place to re-establish public order, which was allegedly threatened by the food distributions. Volunteers were systematically prevented from accessing distribution sites, checked for their identity, and issued administrative fines. After a group of these aid organisations challenged the legality of the order, this was finally deemed “disproportionate to the pursued aims” by an administrative court in October 2022.


The criminalisation of migration

The root of the criminalisation of solidarity with migrants is the soaring criminalisation of migration itself. In 2022, migrants were criminalised for driving a boat about to capsize, driving a car across an EU external border, being on a boat that irregularly crossed a border, turning on a mobile phone’s GPS when lost at sea, and resisting pushbacks at sea. For these acts, they were charged with irregular entry, facilitation of irregular entry, acting for profit, involuntary manslaughter, causing an accident at sea, endangering the life of another (including of a child), violent resistance, and membership of a criminal organisation. Many of the cases collected by our media monitoring occurred in Greece, but cases were reported also in Romania, the Netherlands and Italy. In 2022, Borderline-Europe counted at least 264 migrants being arrested following their arrival by boat in Italy, and estimates the number to be around 350.


Acquittals and lengthy proceedings

Among the cases covered by our media review, no one was convicted, which shows how these trials are politically motivated, and judicially unfounded.

Italy: Andrea Costa, Baobab President

The president of the migrants’ rights association Baobab Experience, Andrea Costa, spent six years on trial for “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. The charges were based on the fact that Andrea Costa and a number of Baobab volunteers had offered eight Sudanese and a Chadian citizen support to buy train and bus tickets from Rome, to reach the Red Cross camp in Ventimiglia. The prosecution against Andrea started in 2016, and charges were finally dropped in April 2022. In 2022, nine people received an acquittal decision. Even if they end in an acquittal, trials still have heavy consequences on human rights defenders’ finances, personal life, and psychological wellbeing. Trials often go on for years, because the state appeals first instance acquittal decisions. For six of the nine people acquitted in 2022, the judicial proceedings lasted for at least five years; for two of the nine, they lasted for more than two years; and only for one person was the length of the proceedings less than a month.

Of the 102 human rights defenders criminalised in 2022, almost 3 out of 4 were facing proceedings which were ongoing from previous years and for 9 out of 10, the trial is still ongoing.


Charges and acts of solidarity

Eighteen of the 102 people faced new charges in 2022, while the legal proceedings of eleven people closed in 2022.

People have been criminalised for actions including offering assistance with an asylum application; driving migrants by car or assisting them during a train ride; buying or giving money to buy public transport tickets to migrants; providing food, water and/or shelter to migrants; occupying abandoned buildings to shelter migrants; rescuing or helping migrants in distress at sea; helping migrants to disembark safely; being on a boat or helping others in need on a boat; helping migrants who had been pushed back to cross the border again; photographing coast guard vessels; and anti-racist, pro-migrant activism.

Germany: Julia Seelmann, Franciscan nun

In 2019 and 2020, German nun Julia Seelmann sheltered two Nigerian women who had fled sexual exploitation in Italy in her church. Seelman applied the long-standing practice of “church asylum” in Germany, which protected the women from deportation, and provided them with social support and accommodation. In 2021, the nun was accused of facilitation of irregular stay and ordered to pay a €500 ‘warning fine’ by a regional court. After appealing the court’s decision, she was eventually acquitted in 2022. Half of all 102 human rights defenders were criminalised for acts of solidarity on land, and half for carrying out acts of solidarity at sea.

Three out of four human rights defenders were charged with facilitation of entry, transit or stay or migrant smuggling (depending on how the crime is defined in the national legislation). A third of those charged with facilitation also faced other charges, including money laundering, membership of a criminal organisation, espionage, conspiracy, abuse of office, fraud, extortion, embezzlement, and obstructing investigations by authorities.

Other charges used to criminalise human rights defenders include: acts of terrorism; use of violence; unlawfully and forcibly removing a person to another country; causing another person to fear that violence will be used against them or their property; arrest, detention or confinement of a person against their will; disturbing the peace; radicalisation and being a threat to national security; breach of domicile and irregular stay.