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Young humanitarians are being criminalised for helping refugees

Across Europe, young volunteers are coming to the aid of refugees – and being prosecuted for it

It was a sunny morning in May 2017 when the crew of the Iuventa began another day of search and rescue in the Western Mediterranean.

The ship was bought by Jugend Rettet, a network of young Europeans, in an attempt to prevent refugee deaths in the Mediterranean. The ship’s crew monitored the areas where refugees crossed the sea in boats, having set sail from Libya in hope of reaching Italy to begin a better life in Europe.

“When you get to the dinghy, there are often many people who have already passed away”, Sascha Girke, Head of Mission, tells me. “When fuel meets seawater, it releases deadly fumes. Many died like this. Others died of dehydration. Some capsized, their bodies recuperated hours later by fellow passengers.”

But their rescue missions have saved thousands. Between 2016 and 2017, the ship’s crew and volunteers treated 4,800 people for dehydration, circulatory failure, hypothermia, chemical burns and pregnancy complications, and under Sascha’s watch they rescued over 14,000 refugees who sought to escape the threat of Libyan detention centres. 

The crew expected many crossings on that clear spring day in May 2017, and within an hour they had rescued 76 people. But when they came to transfer the refugees to a larger vessel, the Vos Hestia, so that they could respond to more distress calls, the Italian coordination centre insisted they only disembark 71 passengers and take the remaining five to Lampedusa, an Italian island in between Libya and Malta. “It didn’t make sense”, Sascha tells me. “Vos Hestia had enough space for the remaining five, as did we. There were so many distress signals – why sail all the way to Lampedusa when we were needed around the Libyan coast?” 

The crew were eventually forced to sail north to Lampedusa. Upon arrival, the Italian authorities took Sascha in for a four-hour interview, interrogating him about their work in search and rescue. “It was a bizarre turn of events – we had been working closely with the coastguard for months,” he tells me.

The crew was finally able to sail back to the area of operation, but in the intervening 12 hours, five refugee boats could not be rescued. Their fate is unknown. 

Less than three months later, the Iuventa were brought to Lampedusa once more, this time to respond to a distress signal reported to them by the Italian coordination centre. On this fateful day on August 2 2017, when the crew of the Iuventa crossed into territorial waters searching for the boat, five Italian vessels stood waiting. The crew were issued with a warrant to seize the boat and an indictment that accused them of colluding with smugglers. In retrospect, the crew believe that the report of the boat in distress that took them to Lampedusa was fabricated to ambush them. 

Right now, the crew of the Iuventa are on trial in Trapani for “facilitating illegal entry of migrants” – a term that is a misnomer under international law, which recognises that refugees may cross irregularly to lodge an asylum claim. Court papers have revealed that the purpose of the first diversion to Lampedusa – a diversion estimated to cost hundreds of humans’ lives during that busy weekend in May – was for the Italian authorities to bug the vessel. In Sascha’s words: “that day, the Italian authorities put an investigation above human life.” 

It’s not uncommon for volunteers to face criminalisation like this. In 2018, search and rescue volunteers Sarah Mardini, Nassos Karakitsos, and Seán Binder spent more than 100 days in a Greek high-security prison on charges of espionage that the UN has publicly denounced. At the time, Sean and Sarah were just 24 and 23 respectively. Like the Iuventa crew, if convicted, they will face more than 20 years in prison. 

“The trauma is unimaginable. Many of them watched their friends drown as they themselves were drowning” – Madi Williamson

Meanwhile, volunteers documenting pushbacks – when state authorities violently force refugees to cross back over a border in violation of international law – have faced criminalisation too. Madi Williamson, a 27-year-old American nurse, moved to Istanbul in 2020 and began documenting the Greek authorities’ use of pushbacks to stop refugees from entering their territory by collecting testimonials from survivors. “The trauma is unimaginable”, Madi told me. “Many of them watched their friends drown as they themselves were drowning.” 

While on holiday on the Greek island Chios in May 2021, Madi and her roommate were detained by plain-clothed police. They were held overnight, and police officers subjected Madi to a strip search. “I’ve worked in psychiatric wards where contraband services were commonplace,” she says. “This was not a strip search: this was sexual assault designed to intimidate me.” The next day she called the US embassy, only to find that an accusation of “criminal activity with national security ramifications” left her with few diplomatic avenues. “This is emblematic of the Greek prosecution,” Madi explains. “They make the charges as severe as possible so that your case becomes untouchable.” 

A year later, there is still no update on her case. “National security cases can have a 20-year statute of limitations. I imagine they’ll drip-feed updates to torture me. I’m crippled with anxiety,” she says, “on top of the anxiety of being a millennial trying to navigate this hellscape.” 

Volunteers operating on the EU’s external border between Poland and Belarus have had similar experiences. Tomek* is one of them. “When I started volunteering in October 2021, the border guards were much less trigger-happy,” he tells me. “With time, they realised they could do whatever they want and still be TV heroes – and got increasingly violent.” 

“I’ll never forget the story one man told me: an Iraqi Kurd, he was being shoved under razor wire by the Belarusian border guards, with the Polish border guards pushing him back under the wire. He could feel the wire scraping the skin off his back.” 

Following one particular case, where Tomek assisted a four-year-old child with a life-threatening medical condition, he was detained for three nights. If convicted, he faces eight years in prison. “With no journalists or NGOs on the border, there’s no accountability. Officially the death toll is 19, but I’ve heard reports of shallow graves built on the Belarusian side,” he says. “There are 35 million Polish citizens – we could easily help 20,000 people in our own homes alone. If we can help 4 million Ukrainians, we can help 20,000 more refugees.” 

Sascha, Madi, and Tomek are keen to not centre themselves. “Some are visible when criminalised, and some aren’t – because of the wrong skin colour, the wrong passport,” Sascha says. He mentions the Paros3, a group of Syrian refugees who steered their boat in an attempt to reach safety and were subsequently convicted of “facilitation of unauthorised entry”. The Paros3 have received a total, combined sentence of 439 years. 

As these activists face detention, do they have any regrets? Sascha say says his only regret is that they “didn’t refuse to go to Lampedusa that day so many people died.” Meanwhile, Madi says it was worth the toll it’s taken on her. “I don’t regret anything. I’m a nurse: my job is to identify risks to people’s lives – and pushbacks are one such risk.” Tomek also says he regrets nothing – “apart from that I asked the guards for a cigarette. Next time I’m detained I’ll bring my own.”

*Name changed for anonymity.

The Iuventa’s trial began on Saturday 21st May – support them on their website.

To campaign with Free Humanitarians for Seán, Sarah, and Nassos, and Madi as/when she is called to trial, visit their website.

Grupa Granica and Border Violence Monitoring Network continue to document pushbacks in Poland and Europe in general.