Despite a long history of solidarity, Europe closes ranks on humanitarian smuggling

In its latest report on the migration crisis, Obstacle Course to Europe: A Policy-Made Humanitarian Crisis at EU Borders, Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) likens a Syrian refugee’s journey towards the European Union to a game of snakes and ladders.

The player, like a real-life refugee, tries to dodge war, checkpoints and violence to flee Syria. Beyond, detention looms large.

Skip two turns if you’re detained. Jump 28 spaces if you cross the sea with a smuggler.

You’ve made it to Europe. Closed border? Bad luck, you’re detained again.

The end result is a messy, unstable image of borders, arbitrariness and — this is a game, after all — luck.

The crisis on Europe’s borders has produced a similar effect, with ever-diversifying routes into Europe. With smuggling increasingly criminalised and demonised around the Mediterranean, and borders within the Schengen Zone securitised in unprecedented ways, some are turning to alternative routes.

Refugees and asylum seekers may turn to family for help. In other cases, organisations, activists and concerned members of the public are also taking on the role of the smuggler or facilitator.

The family of Mazen, a German national with Syrian roots, has helped to get five relatives out of Syria through a German system of private sponsorship. Mazen’s father, who owns a Syrian restaurant in Germany, has been instrumental in arranging the exit of their relatives from Syria, he says.

“We arranged their visas [to Germany] before they even came to Europe — in the embassy in Beirut, usually,” Mazen says, explaining that local German authorities have to accept an individual before they can even be granted an appointment at an embassy.

“Now we’re trying to get visas arranged in the embassy in Ankara [Turkey] so then they can legally enter Germany and the EU, and don’t have to go through the illegal way.”

Mazen is speaking anonymously because a cousin, currently in the Syrian army, is hoping to leave Syria and make it to Germany in the near future.

“We’ve not cooperated with any people that bring people into Europe illegally — but, that’s also because there is this legal loophole, or a legal possibility, based on these quotas that they have on the regional level,” he told Equal Times.

“The problem is that for everyone you bring in to Germany, you’re eligible to pay for everything for them — healthcare, expenses, so on,” something that Mazen suggests can cost tens of thousands of euros in total. The onus for supporting recently-arrived refugees then falls on the family, not the state.

Since 2013, Germany has made some 10,000 additional spaces available to Syrian refugees with relatives in Germany through private sponsorship (rather than national resettlement or family reunification quotas), distributed across 15 of the country’s 16 states. At least 5,000 people have benefited from the programme since 2014.

Several organisations, including Human Rights Watch and the Migration Policy Institute, have previously discussed the merits of private sponsorship as just one under-used option for combatting irregular migration — a journey that refugees fleeing war and repression are too often compelled to take.

Mazen’s father was motivated to help relatives who found themselves in a country ravaged by war. However, Mazen acknowledges that the mood towards this kind of humanitarian action has changed.

“Now it’s basically treated like organised crime if you’re helping someone to cross a border,” he said.

It is a far cry from Europe’s not-so-distant past.


A long history

Europe has a long history of so-called ‘humanitarian smuggling’ that long predates the current migration and refugee crisis now unfolding on Europe’s external and internal borders.

While European politicians consistently talk about the need to defend the Schengen Zone’s principle of open borders — European Commissioner for Home Affairs and Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, speaking at the European Parliament in mid-January, warned: “If Schengen collapses, it will be the beginning of the end of the European project” — it was not that long ago that members of the public were helping to smuggle, facilitate or help refugees across iron-clad borders within the continent.

So-called Fluchthelfer (‘refugee helpers’) would facilitate the movement of people from Soviet East Germany to West Germany after the Second World War. There are many stories lionising these grassroots facilitators, some of whom actually collaborated with or were rewarded by the West German authorities.

However, recent court cases suggest that official attitudes towards this kind of humanitarian border crossing are rather different in 2016.

Last month, a French court sent a 41-year-old British woman to prison for attempting to smuggle a Syrian teenager back to the UK from the port of Dieppe in the boot of her car.

One week before, British activist and ex-soldier Rob Lawrie narrowly escaped a prison term for similarly attempting to stow away a four-year-old Afghan child, Bahar Ahmadi, in his van in order to reunite her with her father, who is currently residing in England.

Despite the risks, others are doing the same elsewhere in Europe.


Increasingly common

Nowadays Germany, a country perhaps most in the European gaze for its – particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel’s – stance on refugee resettlement and asylum, has seen a rise in refugee helper initiatives in the past few years, ranging in legality and levels of organisation. But this is increasingly at odds with the prevailing mood about irregular movement across borders.

And yet this different form of “smuggling” — humanitarian and not-for-profit — might actually become increasingly common if European borders shut down and migration flows continue to grow.

Indeed, unlikely movements like those presented in the award-winning documentary film, On the Bride’s Side, in which a group of Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees are transported from Italy to Sweden with the help of an Italian filmmaker and a Palestinian poet, are not one-offs.

In September last year Al Jazeera English spoke to a 28-year-old German woman who had helped three refugees, transporting two into Germany and one other person into Denmark by driving down country lanes in the middle of the night. The woman spoke on condition of anonymity because revealing her identity ran the risk of criminal charges of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

But there are actually more organised approaches to this. Last year, activists from the PENG-Collective, also based in Germany, similarly called for more people to engage in ‘escape aid’ — voluntary, grassroots acts of ‘civil disobedience’, whereby people help refugees and asylum seekers clandestinely cross borders. The initiative’s web URL,, directly refers to Germany’s not-so-distant history of refugee helpers.

In Greece — another key landmark in the migration crisis, and where islanders are to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their massive volunteer response to the crisis — activists have constructed a series of ‘solidarity centres’ providing shelter, food and medical care to migrating refugees and asylum seekers.

All of these initiatives are effectively illegal, some more so than others. Those dealing in humanitarian smuggling, if caught, can theoretically end up serving a lengthy prison sentence. Germany has the legal infrastructure to put away smugglers and refugee helpers for up to 10 years.

The EU also defines the crime of “facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence” in Article 1 of Council Directive 2002/90/EC (November 28, 2002). At the same time, prosecutions are not necessarily a forgone conclusion.

“We estimate that in most cases, escape agents will not be prosecuted, even if they are caught, or at least will be ‘only’ subject to a fine. Especially if they were caught for the first time,” the website’s legal section claims: “This will be the case, if escape agents are not working to the benefit of several refugees and if they do not receive any money or any other promises in return for the escape aid.”