Decriminalising solidarity with migrants and refugees

The Social Platform network is campaigning to change EU legislation that currently deters those offering humanitarian aid to migrants and refugees

Helen Joseph

EU legislation states that anyone who intentionally assists an undocumented migrant to enter or transit across the EU, as well as those who profit financially by helping them to reside in the EU, is breaking the law and may be sanctioned. Adopted in 2002 and known as the Facilitation Directive, the legislation identifies what is meant by facilitation of the entry, transit and residence of undocumented migrants. In many cases, this means organised smuggling rings, or employers and landlords seeking to exploit undocumented migrants' vulnerable position.

However, the directive does not rule out imposing similar sanctions on individuals or organisations that offer humanitarian assistance to undocumented migrants. This could include the provision of emergency shelter, food and medical attention, even if these services are delivered without the aim of making a profit.

It is because the directive gives member states the ability to criminalise humanitarian intervention that Manuel Blanco faces 10 years' imprisonment in Greece. Manuel, a Spanish fire chief, is the founder of a non-governmental organisation called PROEM-AID, and along with his colleagues, he had been volunteering and saving lives on the Greek island of Lesbos. But in January 2016, Manuel and two of his colleagues were arrested; because they had been pulling drowning migrants to safety, they were accused of people smuggling.

It is not just Social Platform that wants to decriminalise solidarity: more than 134,000 people have signed an online petition (available at calling for the EU to revise the Facilitation Directive to ensure that humanitarian actors are protected. We want the wording of the text to be changed from saying member states 'may decide not' to prosecute humanitarian assistance, to saying they 'shall not'. In reality, the change requires political will from member states to re-examine how they enforce the directive?at national level. The European project is facing turbulent times, with populism on the rise, a rightward-shifting political landscape, and the continuing need to provide refuge to people fleeing war, persecution and poverty. Now is the time for the EU to show its mettle and defend its values.

Social Platform is the largest network of European rights- and value-based civil society alliances working in the social sector. It promotes social justice, equality and participatory democracy.