“Refugee rescue boats carrying stranded migrants face fines of up to €1m (£918,000).” Yesterday’s news announced that in Italy, saving a drowning person can get you criminally charged, and fined. Nice. It was only two weeks ago, that 150 people drowned in the Mediterranean. They were likely trying to reach Italy. 140 survived. They were rescued by fishermen and the Libyan Coast Guard.
Those fishermen saw through the funhouse mirror of the current moment. They followed common sense (and maritime tradition and international law) that requires sailors to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost. So does every religion that I know of. But obviously, right wing politicians in Italy do not. Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini boasted in May that by stopping the rescue of migrants, he brought, “deaths in the Mediterranean Sea to zero, with pride and Christian spirit.” It’s all lies of course. The refusal to allow migrant boats to land in Italy is making things much more dangerous for those fleeing war, violence and poverty.
But many people keep trying to do the right thing. And governments try to stop them. Over the past few years, European governments have prosecuted people for helping migrants, calling them ‘crimes of solidarity.’ Most recently, on June 29th, Italian officials arrested Carole Rackete, captain of the NGO owned Sea Watch 3 for docking her boat without permission. The ship, with 40 migrants on board, had waited for 16 days to land. Other captains have been charged, and other boats operated by NGOs and social movements have been seized. In May, Claudia Lodesani, the President of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Italy said, “It’s like fining ambulances for bringing patients to hospital.” Stopping people from drowning isn’t the only crime. In Belgium people have been charged for housing migrants, in France, for helping them to find their way across the Alps, and in Northern Europe, for stopping their deportations to war torn countries.
When states criminalize rescue, what does that mean for those hoping to expand and defend human rights? This question haunted a small conference on the Contentious Politics of Migration that I attended in Italy this May. Renowned sociologist Donatella della Porta argued that in such a moment, with immigration and other security forces leaving people to die, social movements begin doing humanitarian work, and when that support becomes illegal, humanitarian organizations must become social movements.
After the conference, I saw these blurred categories at play in the Alps. My partner and I were visiting a friend in the Susa Valley, high in the mountains that border Italy and France. The village is well known for its decades long grassroots resistance to an environmentally dodgy high speed rail project being pushed through by corrupt politicians and businesspeople. This struggle had built strong ties in the community, in their “No TAV” campaign, and had a healthy skepticism about politicians and their plans. Indeed, as we had travelled through Italy, we had seen No TAV flags at migrant justice and anti-fascist protests in Firenze, in Milan and in Bologna. What had begun as a struggle against a megaproject, had become something much broader. After dinner that evening, we travelled with our friend, and another NO TAV activist up the winding mountain road towards the border.
We stopped in a tiny village, approached a small emergency shelter and knocked on the plastic. Inside were five men who had come on these forbidden boats from sub-Saharan Africa. They gave us their shoe sizes, and we promised to meet them later. Next we went to a nearby building and gathered winter boots and coats for the men who would be crossing the mountains that night. It was May, but the mountains are cold. An hour later, the bus dropped them in the ski village of Clavière. Ski season over, this touristy place was a quietly absurd setting. Joined by some “No Border” activists, we chatted with the migrants and distributed winter coats and boots. At least one fellow was from Guinea, and he had tried to cross before. He told me that he was going to ‘use his head’ that night and we talked about family – his and mine. Another guy looked extremely worried as he checked his cell phone battery and pulled on mittens. Two volunteers from the Red Cross, wearing bright outfits strolled up. They handed out a flyer ‘for emergencies’, explaining that if they get called, the police will also come. As the daylight faded, and the chill of the mountains set in, our comrades handed out maps that would help them cross the mountains safely in the dark. They hoped to avoid the French border police. If they were unlucky, they would be caught and sent back. If they were really unlucky, they might fall off a cliff or get lost in the woods. At least five had died on this route in the first eight months of 2018. The goal was to make it across the border without detection, and find the French activists on the other side of the border who would take them to a shelter where they can rest and eat.
When darkness fell, the group set off in pairs. So too did we, in the other direction, only to be stopped by the carbinieri, who had watched the entire interchange. They knew the locals, who had done this every night for three years, but they who wanted to know who we were. Our passports and privilege checked, we were allowed to continue down the mountain.
I don’t know whether or not those guys found the French solidarity activists; and whether the activists themselves would be okay. French activists, had, like the Italian ones, been charged with crimes of solidarity. In 2018, the French Constitutional Court had ruled that criminalizing humanitarian aid including food and shelter went against France’s principle of ‘Fraternité’, but anyone seen as facilitating illegal border crossing could still be prosecuted.
Having flown back across the Atlantic, I wonder about “Crimes of Solidarity”, and the principle of “Fraternité”. What did it mean to offer solidarity in this hemisphere; at this moment? We are buffeted by a wave of hatred – from a white supremacist railing against immigrants and shooting up a Walmart in Texas, to the largest workplace immigration raid in a decade in Mississippi. Such acts are connected to Trump’s Salvini-like call to send four Congresspeople to ‘go back to where they came from.’ Xenophobia and hatred are corrosive. They disorient. They make something as basic as helping a drowning person, a person fleeing war, a person trying to help their children, a crime. Actions like the Wayfair workers who walked out of work and refused to send beds to ICE Detention Centres where children were being held; the Nashville residents who were arrested blocked a van deporting their neighbor. The activists vowing to block the building of a new immigrant detention centre in Laval Quebec. They remember that old chestnut; that you treat people as you would wish to be treated.
Lesley Wood, August 8, 2019
Amante, Angelo. 2019. “Italy seizes charity boat after it brings migrants ashore.” Reuters May 18, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-italy/italy-seizes-charity-boat-after-it-brings-migrants-ashore-idUSKCN1SG1ID
D’Emilio, Frances. 2019. Italian Aid Migrant Ship Captain Arrested. Huffington Post. 29 June 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/italian-aid-migrant-ship-captain-arrested_n_5d1825dce4b082e5536a6f08
Edmond-Pettit, Anya and Liz Fekete. 2018. “Investigations and prosecutions for crimes of solidarity escalate in 2018.” Institute of Race Relations. Dec 6, 2018. http://www.irr.org.uk/news/investigations-and-prosecutions-for-crimes-of-solidarity-escalate-in-2018/
Lettera 43. 2019. “Viaggio a Claviere, tra i migranti che passano il confine” 12 January 2019 https://www.lettera43.it/claviere-migranti-confine/#0AL2agJ9JWjHjJ4k.99
The Local. 2018. Helping migrants: Top French court says no punishment for ‘crimes of solidarity’ 6 July 2018. https://www.thelocal.fr/20180706/helping-migrants-top-french-court-says-no-punishment-for-crimes-of-solidarity
Momigliano, Anna. 2019. “About 150 Migrants Drown in Shipwreck Off Libya,” New York Times. 25 July 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/25/world/middleeast/migrants-shipwreck-libya.html?auth=login-email&login=email
Nabert, Alexander, Claudia Torrisi, Nandini Archer, Belen Lobos and Claire Provost. 2019.“Hundreds of Europeans ‘criminalised’ for helping migrants – as far right aims to win big in European elections.” Open Democracy. May 18, 2019. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/hundreds-of-europeans-criminalised-for-helping-migrants-new-data-shows-as-far-right-aims-to-win-big-in-european-elections/
Perrone, Alessio. 2019. Refugee rescuers to be fined up to €1m under new Italian law promoted by far-right Salvini”. The Independent. 6 August 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/italy-refugee-rescue-boat-fine-law-salvini-senate-vote-a9040936.html
Solis, Rogelio and Jeff Amy. 2019. “’Let them go!’: Largest US immigration raids in a decade net 680 arrests” USA Today. 7 August 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/08/07/mississippi-immigration-raid-koch-foods-hit-ice-sting/1945960001/?fbclid=IwAR0r4Nrd8bLrdzdP0BE-7pnAa7CWQ7OP3NPEW5f9umamRPVCTpIl_XF_-Ro