Sarah Mardini, the Syrian refugee whose story Netflix’s The Swimmers is based on, is among 24 refugee aid workers who face criminal charges on the Greek island of Lesvos for assisting refugees in what has been described as “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity” in Europe.

While the judges have decided to drop some of the misdemeanor charges leveled against the aid workers on technicalities, they still face more serious criminal charges including facilitating the illegal entry of migrants, and participation in a criminal organization. Human rights groups are clear that “this is not justice.

“Justice would not leave the felony trials, with an as of yet undetermined date, looming over our heads,” stated Free Humanitarians.  

Several of the accused were aid workers volunteering on the island of Lesvos who had joined a Greek rescue organization that helped thousands of asylum seekers fleeing conflict. Despite fulfilling their legal duty to help those in distress at sea, they were charged with crimes like espionage, forgery, and facilitating illegal entry. All defendants have denied all the charges brought against them

The case had been criticized by the UN’s human rights office, as well as other groups. Amnesty International, for instance, wrote in a statement: “This case is a textbook example of how the criminal justice system can be misused by the authorities to punish and deter the work of human rights defenders.”

For several years, Greece has been working to restrict undocumented migrants’ access to the country, according to Human Rights Watch. One of the Greek authorities’ alleged tactics involves dragging migrant vessels back to international waters, in violation of maritime law — a practice known as a pushback.

But Greece is far from the only culprit in a continent-wide escalation of criminalizing solidarity. It’s a worrying trend that has been intensifying for years with similar cases taking place all across Europe. Here are just a few of the many acts of solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers that have been criminalized in Europe in recent years. 

1. Helping a pregnant woman in the snowy mountains

This case involves snowy weather, a French mountain guide, and a pregnant Nigerian migrant woman. Sounds like the plot of a thriller, but this is a real life story.

In 2018, Benoit Duclois was hiking with some volunteers in the Montgenèvre area of the French Alps when he spotted a woman trudging through deep snow. She appeared to be in great distress, breathing with difficulty. Duclois realized this was because she was in an advanced state of pregnancy. So he did what any compassionate human being would do and immediately provided assistance, managing to lead her to the safety of his vehicle. They had intended to get to the nearest hospital but were blocked by French police who objected to the fact that Duclois had undocumented illegal immigrants on board and arrested him. 

Despite the fact that Duclois probably saved the woman and her baby's life, French authorities charged him with violating immigration laws, which can carry a sentence of up to five years.

2.  Helping a family stranded in the forest 

In March 2022, on a cold winter’s day, four human right activists entered an icy forest within the Polish-Belarus border, with one mission in mind: to help families stranded in the cold forest across the Polish border due to pushbacks by Polish Border guards to Belarus, despite these families pleading for asylum

The group of activists spotted a family with seven children who had been living in the freezing forest for three months, with no access to water, food, or shelter. The activists offered the family warm blankets, food, and transport to safety. 

Yet their act of kindness was deemed a criminal offence by Polish officers, who arrested and detained the activists.

Grupa Granica, the organization to which the detained activists belong, says they were providing humanitarian aid.

“When they helped refugees from Ukraine they were heroes, now for providing that same help in Podlasie, they are criminals,” they added

3. Giving exhausted people a lift 

In 2016, human rights activist and writer Lisbeth Zornig and her husband were convicted of human smuggling. Their crime? Offering transport and hospitality to a Palestinian-Syrian refugee family in Denmark. 

Zornig was heading to Copenhagen for an event at which she was giving a presentation. She decided to make a pit-stop along the way, at Rødbyhavn. When she arrived, however, she was met with scenes of chaos, scores of desperate and exhausted adults, children, and single mothers, most of them carrying nothing but small plastic bags with the few belongings they owned inside.

She approached a family of six who she later found out were from Syria and had made the long journey in hope of being reunited with their father, who now lived in Sweden. She offered them a ride and later bought them train tickets and dropped them off at the train station so they could reach their father. 

A month later, Zornig and her husband were accused of people-smuggling and charged with violating Danish immigration laws

A similar incident occurred in Switzerland in 2019, where human rights activist Anni Lanz, a 73-year-old woman, was convicted and fined for giving a homeless, frost-bitten Afghan asylum-seeker a lift over the Italian border into Switzerland. 

4. Saving lives at sea

On June 29, 2019, German captain, Carola Rackete, was arrested for maneuvering her ship carrying 40 migrants into a port in Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, without permission — after a 60-hour stand-off with the Italian authorities.

Earlier that month, the news had broken that a group of migrants were drifting on an inflatable raft off the coast of Libya, during a heatwave. 

Rackete set out on a rescue operation to save the people stranded at sea in the scorching heat. But once they were all safely on board, they found no country would allow them to enter port and disembark. 

After a two-week stalemate, Rackete decided to sail her rescue ship into Italian waters because “there were no other options left.” She was arrested and prosecutors in Sicily launched a probe into her on suspicion of “aiding illegal immigration.”

5.  Providing food and shelter in a church

One Sunday morning in February 2018, in a church at the foot of the snow-capped Jura mountains in a small Swiss town, Pastor Norbert Valley’s service was interrupted by the arrival of two policemen. Worshippers watched horrified as the minister was led away for questioning at the police station.

For offering shelter and money to a man from Togo, whose asylum application had been rejected, Pastor Valley was charged with “facilitating the illegal stay” of a man. 

“These cases are not just about the prosecution of individuals but about creating an atmosphere where people displaying basic human decency are stigmatized and discouraged from helping other human beings,” Amnesty International said at the time. “Pastor Valley has become emblematic of all those who refuse to be cowed into silence.” 

6. Making someone a cup of tea

In 2019, a French mountain guide, Pierre Mumber, was charged and later acquitted for “facilitating irregular entry” and faced a potential three-month suspension. His crime? Offering hot tea and warm clothes to four West African asylum seekers, including a seriously injured Nigerian woman, who had arrived in France through the mountains from Italy in 2018. 

The France-Italy border is mostly made up of steep and dangerous terrain. In seeking to cross, asylum seekers run risks from losing their footing on steep drops, being injured by falling rocks, or succumbing to the -9°C (15°F) temperatures in clothing ill-suited to the weather. At least 87 people have died on the Alpine border since 2015. 

7. Stopping a deportation flight

In the UK in March 2017, 15 human rights defenders, known as the “Stansted 15” were arrested, put on trial, and later convicted of “terrorism-related offenses.

What did the group do? They organized and conducted a peaceful protest in which they chained themselves to the wing of a plane to prevent a deportation flight which was due to take 60 people on a charter flight to Ghana and Nigeria.     

After 11,000 people sent messages of solidarity to the Stansted 15, their conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2021.          


Demand Equity

7 Shocking Things People Have Been Criminalized for While Trying to Help Refugees

By Fadeke Banjo