The Criminalisation of Solidarity

By Elizabeth Hobbs

In recent years there has been an alarming increase in the criminalisation of acts of solidarity within Europe. This is particularly prevalent in the context of solidarity with refugees and migrants, but it also poses a potential threat to the wider European human rights community. It is situated within the context of a rise in populist currents in several European countries and the consequential clamp down on rights and liberties in various forms. As governments attempt to bolster the walls around ‘Fortress Europe,’ securitisation is used to justify increasingly hostile response and repressive policies. This narrative of ‘threat’ and ‘necessary response’ can be seen throughout European political discourse and helps to strip the refugee discussion of humanity. The delineation of refugees as ‘threats’ helps to distance the conversation from the reality. Sinister and menacing forces are insinuated, and the othering of refugees helps to demonise those seeking help and those who try to support them.

Laws originally designed to target traffickers are now being deployed against search and rescue efforts, those seeking to protest against deportations on planes, and others offering humanitarian support such as healthcare and shelter. By associating humanitarian aid workers and volunteers with this perceived web of criminality, governmental actors are not only attempting to discourage others from joining solidarity efforts but also to discredit their legitimate protests and calls for change. As the targeting of European human rights workers has increased, campaigners have denounced this as a sinister effort to use the notion of security to silence civil society.[i] The criminalisation of solidarity is only one tool within a wider political project, but there are concerns that it heralds a worrying new political normality.

A number of significant cases exemplify this, as individuals engaged in humanitarian work have become the targets of a clampdown on solidarity networks. This ranges from the prosecution of search and rescue volunteers, to the forced determination of the activities of the rescue ship, the Aquarius in the Mediterranean, and the conviction fpr terror-related offences of the Stanstead 15. The high-profile case of Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder who were both arrested in Greece in September 2018 was a prime example of this emerging trend. They were initially held on charges of people smuggling following their work as NGO lifeguards rescuing asylum seekers arriving of the coast of Lesbos.[ii] They then faced further accusations of espionage and money laundering. Sarah holds refugee status and has been internationally celebrated after her and her Olympian sister saved the lives of 18 individuals by swimming their dinghy to shore in 2015 after fleeing Syria. Sarah was held for 107 days in total in the high security Koryalllos prison in Athens, while Sean was held in Chios – they have both now been released on bail, yet they both face 25 years imprisonment. Despite their release from pre-trial detention, there is still concern that they face what what Amnesty International has called ‘absurd charges’ and what Human Rights Watch referred to as ‘baseless accusations.’

Another example is the recent case of Carola Rackete, the Captain of the Sea Watch 3. She was arrested on the 29th June 2019 when she docked her vessel in the port of Lampedusa with 40 displaced people on board in defiance of a ban by the Italian government. The actions of the Italian government, including a draft decree by the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, to fine those who rescue refugees and displaced people at sea, had already been widely condemned by UN human rights experts. They called on authorities, “to stop endangering the lives of migrants, including asylum seekers and victims of trafficking in persons, by invoking the fight against traffickers. This approach is misleading and is not in line with both general international law and international human rights law. Instead, restrictive migration policies contribute to exacerbating migrants’ vulnerabilities and only serve to increase trafficking in persons.” It was within this political context that Carola Rackete was arrested for docking her ship after a two-week stand-off at sea. She faced charges of abetting irregular immigration and forcing her way past a police vessel, which can face up to ten-year jail sentence. Yet, she was released days later when an Italian court ruled to free her. Her organization, Sea-Watch, said that the judge had considered that she acted ‘in performance of a duty’ to save lives.’ They considered that, ‘her only ‘wrongdoing’ was to enforce human rights in the Mediterranean and to take responsibility where none of the European governments did.’ Afterwards she outlined that she saw her release, ‘as a big win for solidarity with all people on the move including refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, and against the criminalization of helpers in many countries across Europe.’[iii]

Despite this small victory, the trends and rhetoric at a European governmental level remain disturbing. Particularly concerning was President Macrons’ insinuation in January 2018 that charities, such as Refugee Rights Europe, working in Northern France, are lying as regards reports of police violence perpetrated against refugees and displaced people in the area. Similarly, Vincent Berton, the Deputy Prefect for Calais, also said that such reports of police violence were “allegations, individuals’ declarations, not based on fact.” It is alarming that such statements directly seek to undermine the work conducted by organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Bar Human Rights Committee, Help Refugees and Refugee Rights Europe, aimed at documenting and highlighting the human rights violations facing refugees and displaced people in the area. The warning is loud and clear; solidarity efforts which seek to challenge the status quo are not welcome. If the trend of increased criminalisation of solidarity efforts is allowed to continue unchallenged it may increase public apathy towards engaging with a human rights agenda and further discourage assistance and activism. Overall, the consequences and ramifications will be faced by those who need the solidarity and support the most.


[i] Smith, H. (2018) ‘Arrest of Syrian ‘hero swimmer’ puts Lesbos refugees back in spotlight.’ The Guardian, 6th September (online) <> (Accessed: 12th August 2019)

[ii] (Accessed: 12th August 2019)

[iii] (Accessed: 15th August 2019).

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