People leave their homes for a number of reasons. Most are forced to migrate because their livelihoods have been destroyed by war, resource exploitation, climate change and unjust economic and trade relations developed over centuries. The European Union (EU) is one of the main beneficiaries of these geopolitical and economic conditions.

But while Europeans enjoy almost limitless freedom of movement, non-Europeans have few options for legal and safe pathways to Europe; so they turn to illegal and dangerous routes.

Border fortifications are being massively expanded, militarised and shifted to countries such as Turkey or North Africa, building neo-colonial relations of dependence and extortion. The “fight against unauthorized migration” is a declared political priority of the EU.

Those who nevertheless make it to Europe are turned into persons without rights, illegals. The border brands you long after you have crossed it. Imprisonment, placement in camps, work bans and deportations are the “normality” of life for most migrants in Europe. The “fight against unauthorized migration” has not only dismantled basic human rights such as the right to life and physical integrity. The dignity and rights of migrants and refugees are increasingly undermined or simply disregarded. The illegalization of migration creates the material basis and political legitimation to force people into precarious and illegal working and living conditions: human trafficking, exploitation, forced prostitution, homelessness – lawlessness on an enormous scale.

An attack on all of us

Individuals, groups and organisations working to ensure that people have access to fundamental rights regardless of their status are inevitably caught in the crosshairs of this policy of isolation and deterrence.

As a result, life-sustaining measures at sea become an aid to illegal entry, the provision of food and accommodation an aid to illegal residence. All provision of moral and material aid is suspicious and/or punishable.

Under the pretext of the “fight against smuggling”, various means of policing and prosecution are being deployed, honed and expanded throughout Europe. We are currently experiencing a wave of repression against all those who organise against the violence of this doctrine of walling-off and marginalisation by standing in solidarity with people on the move.

Guilty of Solidarity: Networking in Switzerland, May 2019

Rescue ships are still being prevented from leaving, social centres are being demolished, solidarity activists are being detained or have already been sentenced to imprisonment or, like us, the iuventa crew, are frozen in long-standing and expensive court cases. Firefighters, priests, lawyers, students, activists – old and young – women and men – are among the hundreds of Europeans who have been subjected to state repression in recent years for their solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers. Whether we unite with friends, neighbours and colleagues – in hiding, in small initiatives or large organisations – in everyday life, on the streets, at work or in social centres to stand up for a different, emancipatory, peaceful and free society for all of us, the criminalisation of solidarity is a real daily threat.

A database compiled by OpenDemocracy reveals that 250 people across Europe have been arrested or otherwise criminalised for providing food, shelter, transport and legal assistance to migrants over the last 5 years. With more than 100 trials, the number of these cases increased dramatically in 2018 – twice as many as in 2017.

But most people arrested in the name of the “fight against smuggling” are the very ones who already suffer most from EU border policy: those seeking protection themselves. Because they were forced to steer boats, read the compass or send out distress call, they are prosecuted as so-called scafisti and sentenced to absurdly high prison sentences and fines. Their lives are being destroyed, they de facto disappear into prisons, unheard and without advocates, and have to pay with their lives and dreams for this misguided and inhuman European policy.

Finally, let us be clear: the criminalization of solidarity is not the outcome solely of a violent border regime intent on keeping migrants out at all costs. It is part of a European apparatus of policing and social control that criminalizes poverty, induces precarity and isolation, and represses resistance. It has as much to do with austerity, and the precaritization and dispossession of large swathes of the European population as it has to do with migration. Even as it might take migrants as its first and most vulnerable targets, our governments’ anxiety for repression and social control responds to their own citizens’ realization that the things that migrants desire and are denied – safety, security, rights – are increasingly foreclosed to us as well.

In criminalizing solidarity, our governments are not only depriving migrants of the little support they have. They are also expressing a deep-seated fear of the alliances that Europeans and migrants might forge if they made common cause against Fortress Europe and exposed it for what it is: a system that would rob us all of our freedom and rights if it had the chance.

Those who invoke the sanctity of human rights now face a decision: either acquiesce in the regimes that would oppress us, or join us in showing them that they are right to fear us.