Free to Help

What is the problem?

In recent years, compassion has been turned into a crime across Europe. People who have helped refugees and migrants have been threatened, smeared, intimidated, harassed, and dragged through the courts to face punishment simply for helping others in need. Why? To dissuade others from showing solidarity with people on the move in order to deter refugees and migrants from coming to Europe.
When authorities punish and criminalize simple acts of humanity, our common dignity is under attack.

How big is the problem?

Big. Across Europe, hundreds of people are being punished just for helping or showing solidarity with people on the move. Dozens of prosecutions have been launched against NGOs and individuals in Italy, Greece, France and Switzerland.

Who is affected?

The criminalisation of solidarity affects civil society organizations and individuals across Europe, including pensioners, mountain guides, priests, young activists, boat captains and more. It also affects refugees and migrants who dare to help friends and other people on the move.

Learn more. Read our report or read the Executive Summary.

What is being criminalized?

  • Giving food
  • Giving hot tea
  • Providing shelter
  • Giving exhausted people a lift
  • Tweeting
  • Helping people in the mountains
  • Taking children to the Police station
  • Flashing the lights of a car
  • Informing people about their rights
  • Alerting the Coast Guard about people drowning at sea
  • Rescuing people at sea
  • Monitoring and reporting human rights violations
  • Protesting against returns to detention and torture
  • Demonstrating peacefully
  • Stopping a deportation flight
  • Protecting people from pushbacks

The list shows just some ludicrous examples of cases that Amnesty has documented, where simple acts of solidarity result in criminal prosecutions by authorities across Europe.

How are people being persecuted?

Governments are using a range of measures to target solidarity such as:

  • Smear campaigns
  • Repressive laws
  • Code of Conduct for NGOs that can result in delayed rescues at sea
  • Criminal Investigations
  • Prosecutions and baseless charges to drag them through the courts
  • Police harassment and intimidation
  • Fines
  • Entry bans into a country

Governments are also misusing anti-smuggling and counter-terrorism legislation to curb solidarity.


Seán Binder
© Amnesty International

Sarah and Seán’s story

Sarah and Seán are human rights defenders who met when they volunteered together as trained rescue workers on Lesvos in Greece.

Sarah is a refugee from Syria. Her journey to Europe made international news. She and her sister saved 18 people by dragging their sinking boat to safety.

With her friend, Séan, a young, trained diver from Germany living in Ireland, they patrolled Lesvos spotting boats in distress. They decided to volunteer as they couldn’t watch people drown and do nothing.
Their humanitarian work helped save many refugees, but like others across Europe they are being criminalised.

Their trial is due to start in November 2021, an unfair and baseless prosecution accusing them of very serious charges which, if they are found guilty, could amount to 25 years in prison.

More than 700-thousand people all over the world have supported Sarah and Seán and can see that this prosecution is ludicrous. Sarah and Seán were saving lives at sea; saving lives is not a crime.

The prosecution of people like Sarah and Seán is a problematic migration management tactic in Greece, to dissuade others from showing solidarity with refugees and migrants, as well as obstructing the independent monitoring of human rights violations. This is having a chilling effect, with many who were providing assistance to refugees and migrants having now left Lesvos.

Solidarity is on trial here; decent people like Sarah and Seán must not pay the price for Greece and Europe’s cruelty at the borders.

If you ask me now if I would change anything, knowing that my life would be turned upside down, I am telling you that I would do the exact same thing.

Sarah Mardini

The chilling effect on solidarity in Greece

For years Greece has been one of the main arrival countries for migrants and refugees in Europe. However, since the EU-Turkey Deal on migration deal was struck in 2016, the country has adopted an increasingly harsh approach to migration, maintaining inadequate reception conditions in refugee camps and committing serious human rights violations against people trying to cross the borders. This shift was also accompanied by mounting hostility towards individuals and groups working to support refugees and migrants.

In addition to casting a negative light on NGOs and their activities in public debate, Greek authorities misuse anti-smuggling legislation to target activists and criminalize solidarity with refugees and migrants. 

Greek authorities have opened investigations and launched criminal proceedings against humanitarian workers, trained rescuers and activists. Following Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder’s arrest, serious criminal charges have been announced against more NGOs and their members.

The stigmatization and criminalization of helpers has worsened the environment in which individuals and organizations operate. 

In addition to using criminal law to obstruct NGOs activities, in April and September 2020 Greek authorities introduced new legislation affecting NGOs and other entities operating in the areas of migration, asylum, and social integration, imposing burdensome and intrusive requirements, in violation of their right to freedom of association.

Saving lives at sea

Sea rescuers have experienced smear campaigns and criminal investigations elsewhere in Europe. NGO boats have been blocked in ports or impounded, leaving fewer boats available to save people from drowning.  

In Spain, the government arbitrarily blocked two rescue boats for months, preventing them from saving lives in the Central Mediterranean.

In Italy, rescue NGOs have been forced to follow a “Code of Conduct” that can delay rescues and have been investigated just for saving lives. Things got even worse in 2019, as Italy closed ports and passed legislation banning NGOs from entering its territorial waters or risk fines. 

In Greece, trained rescuers spent months in pre-trial detention, after Greek authorities arrested them for assisting refugees arriving on the island of Lesvos. 

The Iuventa Crew

On 2 August 2017, Italian prosecutors ordered the seizure of the Iuventa, the ship of German rescue NGO Jugend Rettet. Despite rescuing 14,000 people, 10 members of the crew were under investigation for facilitating the irregular entry of refugees and migrants in relation to three separate rescue operations that happened in 2016 and 2017. 

The independent organisation Forensic Architecture has reconstructed the events and gathered evidence showing that the Iuventa crew were saving lives.  

In January 2021, prosecutors concluded the investigation. While charges were dropped against six crew members, four others still face charges of facilitation of irregular entry. The accused Iuventa crew members- all German nationals – are Dariush Beigui, Sascha Girke, Kathrin Schmidt, and Uli Tröder. Amnesty International will be present at the preliminary hearing, which will take place on 21 May in Trapani. Amnesty calls for the prosecution to be dropped.

The iuventa10 have been in limbo… lives on hold pending a criminal trial. Amnesty calls for the investigation to be dropped.

Elisa de Pieri (Amnesty Researcher)
The El Hiblu 3
© Amnesty International/Joanna Demarco

El Hiblu 3

In Malta, three teenage asylum seekers are being prosecuted on serious charges that could carry life sentences. Their crime? They defended themselves and protected over 100 other people when the captain of the boat which rescued them tried to illegally take them back to Libya.

In Libya, they were at real risk of suffering unspeakable abuses, including being held in inhumane conditions in a detention centre, extortion, torture and other ill-treatment.

Amnesty calls on the Maltese authorities to drop the baseless charges. Amnesty is proud to be part of the ElHiblu3 Freedom Commission – launched in October 2021 – joining forces with others to demand that Maltese authorities dismiss the case.

Solidarity is helping someone to preserve their dignity

Luigi Chiampo – Parish priest of Bussoleno, Italy
Pierre Mumber
© Private

When you see an exhausted person who cannot walk, you give that person your hand.

Pierre Mumber

Helping people in the mountains

People who live in mountainous areas know that such terrain can be unforgiving and dangerous, especially to those who are unfamiliar with the territory. So in the snowy Alps, at the French-Italian border, a solidarity network tries to prevent the deaths of refugees and migrants crossing from Italy to France.

People from the network try to ensure that the refugees and migrants are fully aware of the risks, give them maps, sturdy shoes and warm clothes to keep safe in the mountains, and assist those who get lost and need to be brought back to safety. 

Cristina, a volunteer from Soccorso Alpino said, “For me, helping is part of my love for the mountain. Solidarity is to care for others. In the Susa Valley, we are a family helping each other.” 

In the French part of the border, in the village of Briançon, people have organized outings to the mountains, on ski or on foot, to search for refugees and migrants who may need help.

At the Italian part of the border acts of solidarity are supported by authorities, but on the French side these same acts are punished. 

Other solidarity actions have also been criminalized. Seven protesters were convicted for participating in a spontaneous march against the presence of an anti-migrant group, which had arrived in the area of Briançon in April 2018, creating a climate of fear. During the protest, a migrant entered France irregularly, allowing authorities to misuse the charge of facilitation of irregular entry to crack down on the protest.

Anni Lanz
© Amnesty Switzerland


Anni Lanz

Anni Lanz, a 73-year-old woman who has defended refugee rights for more than three decades, was convicted and fined for giving a homeless, frost-bitten Afghan asylum seeker a lift over the Italian border into Switzerland. Anni knew the man was desperate to be with his sister in Switzerland and had a serious mental health condition after the death of his wife and child. 

People in Switzerland, including a pastor, have been prosecuted and convicted simply for sheltering refugees or helping them  to access protection. Migrants and refugees have also been prosecuted for helping friends and family members. 

Why is this happening?

Governments across the region have placed an increased focus on limiting and deterring arrivals in Europe. To achieve this, they have turned acts of solidarity by European citizens, which they think might encourage migration, into acts which face prosecution. When authorities prosecute the helpers they create a hostile environment, deterring other people from showing solidarity and assisting refugees and migrants.

Faced with fines and legal fees, human rights defenders and NGOs being criminalized are forced to divert time and resources from their humanitarian work to defend themselves against baseless charges.

Such acts of kindness and humanity are not criminal acts; so how can European citizens be prosecuted for them? 



How can we stop this?

Authorities must stop criminalizing human rights defenders and ensure that people are free and safe to help others. Helping others is something to be applauded, not tried in court.

European authorities must drop charges against those who have done nothing other than showing solidarity with refugees and migrants. Authorities must stop misusing flawed smuggling laws against individuals who are acting out of humanity to help those in need.

European governments could do this by changing laws to ensure that only those who obtain a material benefit will be prosecuted.

Solidarity must be celebrated, not punished.

What can you do?

Join our movement. When we stand together on this, it works.

Like in the case of the Briançon 7 who were convicted for facilitating irregular entry of foreign nationals into France after taking part in a protest march in support of asylum seekers from Italy into France. Amnesty International and others campaigned against this unfair conviction in their thousands, and in September 2021 their conviction was overturned.

Or Tom Ciotkowski, who was charged with contempt and assault in France after recording a French police officer pushing a volunteer in Calais, while he was volunteering for a charity helping migrants. He was eventually acquitted a year later. Tom had himself been violently shoved by police during the incident. In September 2021 the officer who assaulted Tom was sentenced.

  I hope this decision contributes to a rethink of the hostile environment policy towards asylum seekers in Calais and elsewhere and that a new, compassionate approach is taken to the people struggling there and those trying to help them.

Tom Ciotkowski

You can help secure justice for other people who are being criminalised for showing solidarity with refugees and migrants:

  • Sharing this page
  • Talking to your friends about the problems of criminalizing solidarity
  • Organizing an event to raise awareness
  • Supporting organizations that are providing support to refugees and migrants
  • Following Free Humanitarians on Twitter and Instagram to support Sarah and Sean
  • Putting pressure on your government and parliament to take action