Criminalising Solidarity: When helping refugees becomes a risk
The influx of refugees to the shores of Greek islands has generally been met with overwhelming support from locals, eager to provide much needed aid to the refugees. However, on the island of Lesbos, volunteers have seen their compassion met with resistance, even to the point of seeing their efforts criminalised in a bid to deter them.
In Greece in 2015, and especially in the North Aegean, we saw an amazing wave of solidarity among Greeks and foreigners working together to help to manage the huge wave of refugees arriving on the shores. In recent days in the Greek islands we are seeing things change as paranoia emerges along with cries to “control” the volunteers and the NGOs. This common sentiment, which is echoed throughout the European Union, is expressed in headlines reading: “Our Islands Are an Unfenced Vineyard” and “Volunteers and NGOs Roaming Free.”
In Molivos-Petra, the touristic heart of the island and also the place where the majority of the refugees are arriving, groups of business people and other individuals have demanded that the Municipal Council of the island forbid any activities to help the refugees “within the settled areas” of the island. The problem is that boats will continue to arrive in these areas. These groups also asked the Municipal Council to forbid all but a few of the major volunteer groups from working in the island because, they said, the presence of many volunteers creates a bad impression for tourism.
Cracking down on aid
There is no doubt that the refugee crisis has affected tourism on the island. Nor is there any doubt that groups of volunteers working to save lives have had little extra time to meet to co-ordinate their efforts. At the same time, to diminish the numbers of volunteers will most likely result in death and could return the island to the situation of chaos it experienced last summer when refugees were camping on street corners and walking along the side of the roads to reach the capital city. Instead of blaming the volunteers, efforts should be made to help them to coordinate their efforts so that they can do an even better job.
Instead, the Greek government authorities with the support of Frontex have begun to assert legal control over the volunteers. Last week the Building Department sent inspectors to visit the emergency camps set up along the north coast of Lesbos to provide medical assistance, dry clothing, food, and temporary shelter to refugees arriving along the shoreline. The inspectors indicated that they would be issuing fines for any structures built without permission from their offices. In the same days, the Coast Guard with the aid of Frontex arrested seven foreign volunteer lifeguards patrolling the sea in order to save refugees when their boats capsize or their boat’s motor fails. They were charged with aiding the illegal immigrants to enter Greece. Following a twelve hour preliminary hearing, they were released on bail and ordered to return for a trial that could lead to fines or imprisonment. At the same time, three volunteers were apprehended by the police for removing abandoned life jackets from the town dump in order to use them to make mattresses for the refugee camps. Though charges were not pressed, the volunteers were informed that everything in the town dump belongs to the Municipality.
This process, if continued, will only demonstrate the inability of the Greek government and the European Union to manage the refugee crisis in appropriate ways. If the letter rather than the spirit of the law is followed, all of the volunteer efforts and all of the volunteer groups can be declared illegal. Given the archaic nature of the legal system of Greece, it is likely that ways can be found to block every effort to aid the refugees.
Criminalising the provision of basic human rights
Fishermen who rescue refugees from the sea can be charged with aiding illegal immigration. Volunteers who cook in public spaces can be charged for not having secured public health permits. Volunteer doctors can be charged with working in Greece without having their licenses to be reviewed and approved by the national government. Volunteers who pitch tents in public spaces can be charged with violating laws forbidding camping in public spaces. Volunteers who help to change the wet clothes of shivering children might be charged with molesting them. Photographers could be charged with violating military space on the coastlines. Those who donate food, clothing, and other supplies could be charged for not providing receipts. And finally, volunteers choosing to work in small groups without large donor bases, high overhead, bank accounts, and tax numbers can be prohibited from offering to help.
Instead of looking for ways to deter the volunteers, the Greek and European Union authorities ought to consider the illegality of their own activities. They are required by European law to offer asylum to refugees of war. Is it ethical to close the Schengen borders? Should they be harassing and arresting volunteers, whose work is necessary to save the lives and dignity of refugees protected by European law?
It is short-sighted to blame the refugee crisis on the volunteers or to imagine that the refugees will stop coming if there are no volunteers to meet them. The refugees are leaving their homes because their homelands have been made unsafe by war. It is time for all of us, Greeks and other citizens of Europe, to stop complaining about what the refugees are taking from us and to join together with others to help them. Then, when this crisis is over, even if we are still poor as when it began, we will be able to say that in the time of a great humanitarian crisis, we did what we could to aid those who were suffering.