On the occasion of World Refugee Day, Caritas Europa calls for European leaders to stand by their founding values and welcome migrants and refugees with dignity and solidarity.

At a time when almost 70 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their home due to war, conflict or violence, a welcoming Europe is needed more than ever. In a context of stricter migration policies and crackdowns on irregular migration, the criminalisation of solidarity has become widespread across Europe.

“Showing humanity and care to migrants and refugees in deep distress or vulnerable situations should be lauded instead of criminalised,” said Maria Nyman, Secretary General of Caritas Europa.

“In a spirit of fraternity and solidarity, we all have the responsibility to ensure that everyone’s human rights are respected,” she added.

The Caritas Europa network has increasingly witnessed a trend to stigmatise and criminalise humanitarian assistance that organisations and volunteers have provided to migrants in distress.

Examples include cases of police harassing volunteers providing food and offering shower facilities to destitute migrants in Calais, citizens put on trial for providing shelter to asylum seekers in Belgium, and the prosecution of NGO staff members for operating search and rescue missions along the coast of Italy and Malta.

Caritas report similar experiences in other countries, such as Hungary, Greece, Switzerland, Serbia and Spain, just to name a few.

“Humanitarian rescue is not criminal, but it also isn’t heroic, it’s necessary,” said Seán Binder, 25, a volunteer who spent 106 days in pre-trial detention in Greece. He is accused of smuggling and other charges for the humanitarian support he provided to migrants in Lesbos. He is currently awaiting his trial and could be faced with 25 years in prison if convicted.

The current hostile environment creates a chilling effect on solidarity that further fuels toxic and negative discourses on migration. Beyond the direct negative impact this has on the lives of migrants and refugees, criminalising solidarity is additionally dangerous for democracy, as it erodes social cohesion and threatens our humanity.

On this World Refugee Day, Caritas Europa calls on European policy makers to ensure that their legislation against human smuggling and trafficking does not unduly lead to the criminalisation of the humanitarian support provided to migrants and refugees. Instead, they should support civil society and promote a welcoming Europe that puts solidarity, encounter and respect at the centre of policies.

Acts of solidarity to ensure the respect of the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees should be applauded and encouraged, instead of criminalised.