When Sir Nicholas Winton died last year at the age of 106, he was hailed as a hero. The British humanitarian set off for Nazi-occupied Prague as a young stockbroker in 1939 and single-handedly arranged for the rescue of 669 children bound for the concentration camps. In the course of the mission, he is reported on occasion to have forged delayed Home Office documents, without which the children could not leave Czechoslovakia. Eight trains with “Nicky’s children” made it to London. The ninth train carrying 250 children never left because on the day of its scheduled departure Germany invaded Poland and all borders were closed.
While Sir Winton was knighted in 2003, a contemporary British citizen following in his footsteps faces up to a 14-year sentence. Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister, explains that the sanction applies to anyone who helps a non-EU citizen breach immigration laws. In the midst of the current crisis, private individuals across Europe could be prosecuted under immigration and human trafficking laws for helping refugees and migrants out of good will. A Danish couple, for instance, has recently been sentenced to pay a fine of £2,300 per person for giving a lift to a Syrian family attempting to reach relatives in Sweden. Almost 300 Danes are due to stand trial on similar charges.
Greece, whose support system for asylum-seekers has been stretched thin, saw in January of this year the first arrest of charity workers helping refugees and migrants gain “illegal entry” into the island of Lesbos. According to accounts of the incident, the Greek coast guard intercepted the boat of the volunteers while they were towing ashore a struggling dinghy laden with people. The members of the Danish group Team Humanity and the Spanish group PROMAID were accused of failing to alert the Hellenic coast guard in the southern city of Mytilene that they intended to assist boats in distress at sea as required. Prompt communication with the authorities is the only defence under Greek anti-trafficking legislation, which applies to smugglers and volunteers alike as a result of a recent amendment.
Following these incidents the EU has made a move to proscribe humanitarian assistance by civil society, local people and volunteers. Statewatch, a European civil liberties watchdog, reports that the Council of the European Union is drafting a proposal that would equate the concepts of migrant “smuggling” and “trafficking”. Such changes could potentially criminalise the activities of private individuals and NGOs who have been assisting refugees and migrants arriving in the Union. In the alternative, volunteers would be required to register with the police and collaborate with the authorities. In the words of Tony Bunyan, Statewatch Director, no democracy “worthy of the name” should require the registration of basic acts of humanity given that volunteers have been bearing the brunt of providing humanitarian assistance to newcomers in the face of institutional inaction.
The present challenge for the European Union and the individual Member States would be to craft a morally tenable regime that encourages and supports individual acts of kindness while drawing clear and sensible boundaries for volunteer engagement. Excessive policing of humanitarian assistance might discourage civil society from making its indispensable contribution to the management of the current crisis, but it has proven equally problematic to grant non-state actors free rein in steering migration flows across borders. Three Afghan nationals, including a pregnant woman and her sister, are reported to have died in mid-March while attempting to ford a swollen river as an alternative route to cross the closed border between Greece and Macedonia. It transpired that foreign activists distributed leaflets with instructions urging residents of the Idomeni camp to undertake the dangerous journey in order to storm the frontier en masse. Volunteers cannot and should not, ultimately, compensate for the lack of safe pathways for asylum-seekers into the EU. Nor can civil action substitute the provision of services by European governments. As long as we remain committed to a Union of democratic nation-states any functional and lasting solution to the migration predicament needs to match the right to seek international protection in the EU with legal venues to access its territory.