EU to criminalize those who rescue drowning refugees?

by Chris Bertram on February 3, 2016

There is disturbing news via Statewatch that the [EU is drawing up plans to criminalize]( the many independent volunteers who have been working in Greece to assist refugees making their way from Turkish to Greek territory. The plans involve a deliberate conflation of “people smuggling” and “trafficking” and a requirement that all volunteers be registered and placed under the control and direction of state organizations at designated hotspots. Those who stay outside of these structures and go to the beaches where people are actually arriving and assist them by, for example, towing their boats, will be prosecuted. In fact, this is already happening [in the case of some Spanish lifeguards on the Greek island of Lesvos]( There is [a petition](, which I’ve signed, though internet petitions are not a particularly effective means of resistance.



Gary Othic 02.03.16 at 10:13 am

Good lord…

Why don’t they just put machine gun embankments on the beaches and be done with it already?


JoB 02.03.16 at 10:33 am

The problem is not the EU. Unfortunately the problem is Europe. There is a difference. It is worse because this great tradition in civilization is on a race to the bottom with respect to its core value of humanism. We were infected by the US led race to the bottom in taxes and now we are applying that misery to how we deal with people. Denmark is close on the heels of Hungary as bottom runner but, except maybe Germany to some extent, everybody else is following suit. Even left wing politicians (Holland, Belgium) are selling the need to put a maximum on our humanitarian responsibilities in order to avoid collapse of our own system. It’s egoism on all levels so an institution like the EU is de facto powerless (more so because it has been eroded to almost nothingness and then attacked for being superfluous from the same people who eroded and are eroding it).

If Europe would spend as much, relatively speaking, as Jordan on the refugee crisis there would be no crisis. But spending collides with reducing taxes and the only rationale in the European consensus is reducing taxes.

In Italy they put boxes around naked statues. In Europe we talk about human trafficking and people smugglers so nobody is confronted with the horror of us supposedly defending our core values and at the same time betraying their essence.

For an inherently optimistic person this gets me really depressed. Maybe Trump was right after all that I live in a hellhole.


Peter T 02.03.16 at 10:42 am

Already robbing them (Denmark, Switzerland), punishing them for not learning a foreign language quickly (UK), dumping them on tropical islands with violent locals and negligent guards (Australia), proposing to lock them up in camps in the EU’s Greek colony…The list grows month by month. As Gandhi said, Western civilisation would be a fine thing…


Daragh 02.03.16 at 11:02 am

Given the massive logistical problems presented by the ongoing refugee crisis, and the clear legitimate interest EU states have in maintaining some form of record of where and how refugees are entering the union (indeed, such a record would seem to be essential if one wants to ensure adequate planning to care for refugee populations), I think that there might be a far less sinister explanation for what the EU is doing here than a plan to ‘criminalise those who rescue drowning refugees.’

As an aside, while I don’ have direct experience, I would wager that rescuing large numbers of people on rafts in the open ocean is a rather complex and challenging task, that requires well trained personnel operating in a concerted fashion. Enthusiastic volunteers, however well intentioned, could end up doing a lot more harm than good, or simply expending their efforts in area A when they could provide greater assistance in area B. In this context, I don’t see why it would be controversial to require volunteers “be registered and placed under the control and direction of state organizations at designated hotspots.”


JoB 02.03.16 at 11:16 am

Daragh, you might be right on the good intentions of the EU administration but if the EU states really wanted to avoid this mess they could open a registrar office in Jordan instead of building walls, fences and lamenting people are desperate enough to risk drowning. The basic thing is that one politician said something sensible “Wir schaffen das!”, and then the majority of the other politicians decided to silently add after a small pause “Nicht.” All the rest are symptoms of that disease.


Daragh 02.03.16 at 11:30 am

@JoB – you could very well be right about the political aspects of this, but I still think that you’re understating the technical/logistical challenges at play here. Somehow I doubt that opening a registrar’s office in Jordan would solve, or even significantly alleviate this crisis (though applying far greater diplomatic, and perhaps economic, pressure on our gulf state ‘allies’ to make at least some effort to help would be nice). There’s also the issue of Turkey, which is playing all sorts of games on both this issue particularly and Syria more generally. Which also brings us to the thorniest knot of all – actually ending rather than simply ameliorating the crisis requires a resolution to the Syrian civil war. If you have any ideas as to how that might be accomplished, I’m sure they’d be gratefully accepted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but for myself I have to admit that I can’t see any end in sight.


chris y 02.03.16 at 12:50 pm

Is this entirely in the hands of the Commission, or is there any point in contacting one’s MEP? One of mine happens to be a reasonably good one.


JoB 02.03.16 at 1:23 pm

Daragh, The root cause is indeed war. On that side people are talking in Geneva. Talking is good but in the best of cases will lead to results in a year or so. Meanwhile people flee from that war and the question is how to help those people (it’s probably better to call them just people because in Europe somehow the term “refugee” is becoming something that is kind of dehumanizing these people). As to the technical/logistical element, I’m not an expert at all. But even the latest Dutch plan proposed to register them in Turkey. The most humane way is to register them where they are before they have to cross the sea. Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan (whatever their political woes may be) don’t have a sea to hide behind. The reason why this is doesn’t get off the ground is because European states refuse to face the simple fact that you can’t put maximum on the amount of refugees. They see it as a supply driven market in which the European supply is limited. Europe could also improve the standard of living of these unfortunate people closer to home, for instance by giving Jordan money (or the UN if somehow the politics would for that would be too complex), but Europe sees this also as a supply driven market where the European supply of funds is limited. This is maybe true on paper but certainly, relatively speaking, there is no reason why our supply would be more limited than that of Jordan.

So I don’t see simple and immediate solutions. I also don’t see any excuse for the way that we – so proud of our civilization – refuse to find a common solution. The EU can certainly do better if it were allowed to be what it was meant to be: a forum for cooperation between nations instead of being the scapegoat for every individual nation trying to hit the bottom in the quickest possible way in any matter of helping people.

It’s sad in so many ways.


Daragh 02.03.16 at 1:49 pm


Replying in haste – to start with I agree with almost all of the sentiment expressed here, particularly the awfulness of the ongoing tragedy. But I still have a couple of cavils – the first is that the EU is still a collection of states, not a state itself. Most of the post-Communist members have, shall we say, a less empathetic approach to the problem. Short of kicking them out of the EU (impossible) or removing the EU from the crisis altogether (inadvisable) they have to be worked with. This involves ugly compromises, many of which may make us feel morally uncomfortable, but the alternative is paralysis.

I would also argue that giving money to Gulf monarchies and increasingly corrupt semi-authoritarian states, whether through the UN or some other organisation, is highly unlikely to lead to a material improvement in the living standards of the refugee population, though that could just be my natural cynicism.

As to the overall point – you may be right that Europe’s conceptualisation here is wrong. But unfortunately it’s a widely accepted one – Europeans are very willing, generally speaking, to accept large refugee populations and to spend public money supporting them, but are not prepared to do so as part of an unlimited commitment. Even if Europe doesn’t have a ‘supply problem’, Europeans think that it does, and they need to be either convinced or their views need to be accommodated if policies are to be effective and stable.


JoB 02.03.16 at 2:51 pm


I’m not a dreamer. I don’t think the EU should suddenly emerge into a super state. Nor do I believe Eastern Europe will suddenly become receptive to yet another challenge for their recently won normality.

But none of that are real excuses. The Western European framing is that “everybody has to do their bit” in the EU. Given what you say that won’t happen so it is just a convenient bit of rhetoric. The truth is that if there were no EU, Shengen, … then those people would still flee to Western Europe. Belgians didn’t flee in mainly to Morocco either back in the days. The right framing for Western Europe is: “whatever they can do is something we had to do more if we were not in the EU”, whether it is by pledging money or logistical support. So I believe Western Europe should stop asking Eastern Europe to do their bit and just make a plan and ask them what parts of it they can help with. If none, fine, then the next time the compromise is sought from their side it might turn out to be uglier than they expected; we will see if and when that comes up. In the meantime we deal with facts as they are.

I’m sure our support is de facto limited but there is no sense in limiting it to, for instance, the magical 250.000/year (only Merkel had the courage to tell this the way it was). That’s like saying we limit the amount of earthquake we will maximally accept per year to 6 on a scale of Richter ( We have our challenges a.o. dealing with the previous wave of immigration – which was of our own making but nonetheless a reality. Conceptually though making a pre-set limit is not going to help anybody except driving European citizens further down the path of accepting less and less. What are we going to do? Allow people to drown? Jail people who refuse to let a ship wreck? Tell volunteers they should not give food to immigrants because it will just be attracting more immigrants?

Sometimes politics can be about actually mobilizing support. Now it is supposedly about following the sentiment. But, you know, what European politicians are doing is mobilizing support for refusing refugees in order not to have to raise taxes or facing the consequence of what our humanistic constitutions we are so proud of are saying. It’s really just a crying shame.

As to giving money to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan (certainly via the UN), I’m sure that’s not without issues. The issues should be far less far reaching though then giving weapons and political cover in order for them to deal with a problem we choose to ignore.

Also written in haste. Know I have no quarrels with your cavils. To be able to exchange a couple of messages on this subject without starting to shout is actually refreshing.


Matt 02.03.16 at 2:56 pm

Daragh at 4 & 6, the points you make are, in principle, reasonable ones, and do suggest what a good approach would look like. While I’m certainly not an expert on what’s happening right now (I read journalistic stories, but not much more than that, and those are often not fully accurate) it does seem very likely that nothing like what you think should happen is happening or is likely to happen. Given that, we need to think about second-best steps of various sorts.

Additionally, there is a long and sordid history of states all over the world using steps like these ones (or worse) to keep desperate people from reaching land, so as to be able to avoid their legal obligations under the refugee convention. To think that these rules are primarily about protecting those seeking aid strikes me as very unlikely, and in need of significant support in any particular case. (Andy Lamey has a very nice book, _Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What to do About it_ that gives good accounts of the sorts of tactics that have been used by the U.S., Australia, and others to prevent people seeking assistance from landing, for those interested in such things.)


Daragh 02.03.16 at 3:26 pm

@JoB – Can’t write the considered response your comment deserves at the moment (and may not get time to at all), but just wanted to say I too am very pleased that this hasn’t become immediately acrimonious.


Dipper 02.03.16 at 6:01 pm

Hold on … surely the logic is that the more help is given to people coming by water, the more are likely to try and come and so ultimately more will die?


Rich Puchalsky 02.03.16 at 7:00 pm

Daragh: “the clear legitimate interest EU states have in maintaining some form of record of where and how refugees are entering the union (indeed, such a record would seem to be essential if one wants to ensure adequate planning to care for refugee populations)”

Carceral humanism. It’s as if a generation read _Seeing Like A State_ and thought “Oh that sounds like a wonderful basis for a politics.”

This isn’t really acrimonious because I have no real interest in what the defenders of state action to criminalize volunteer refugee help think. It’s just a confirmation that European states are morally bankrupt.


Dipper 02.03.16 at 7:37 pm

@14 and your plan is what? How many people do you think would, given half a chance, come to the EU? Don’t forget to include the North and East Africans in that total? And if you don’t plan to take them all then at some point you have to say “you … but not you” and we are right back on people getting in illegally, being smuggled, falsifying age/nationality etc etc.


Rich Puchalsky 02.03.16 at 8:00 pm

“My plan”? Am I making plans for the state now? Are you?

I guess it comes down to whom you reflexively identify with. As someone of Jewish descent, my family were refugees for generations. I always thought that Europe would go back to the same old behavior at the first real stress.


JoB 02.03.16 at 10:26 pm

Dipper @13, That’s the logic to stupid people. The real logic is that it takes a war to create enough desperation to risk drowning and that sufficient desperation will make people go for a high risk. Whether or not people help at the end of the risky trip will nog make any difference to the amount of people start the risky trip. THe devil is behind them and that makes them move, not a few and far between angelic volunteers at the end.

Further there are distinctions between war refugees, asylum seekers and economic refugees. so the idea that we have to take ‘all NE Africans’ is a bogus argument to justify an illegal cap on the amount of refugees we accept. Somehow we’re made to believe that some people just leave their home and house to annoy the hell out of us.


notsneaky 02.03.16 at 10:58 pm

EU… Ugh! CrookedTimber comments section… Ugh! Ugh!


Ogden Wernstrom 02.03.16 at 11:49 pm

Dipper 02.03.16 at 6:01 pm:

… surely the logic is that the more help is given to people coming by water, the more are likely to try and come and so ultimately more will die?

How does this “logic” calculate the number that will die if they stay in place?

I suppose we have to maintain a risk-of-death that discourages undesireables undesired refugees. To maximise the effect, we must see that those fleeing NE Africa die at a rate only slightly lower than they would experience in Syria.

How many people do you think would, given half a chance, come to the EU?

Apparently, the line must be drawn below half-a-chance to meet this rhetorical standard. It sounds as if the target, then, is a 50%-or-greater mortality.


Peter T 02.04.16 at 2:28 am

Even if one accepted Daragh’s argument, this area of policy is one where slippery slope arguments definitely apply. Australia started by discouraging boat arrivals by placing them in detention. Then by placing arbitrary visa conditions. Then by indefinite detention. Then by placing them in lifeboats and towing them back to the Indonesian 12 mile limit. Then by sending them to Nauru and Manus, with a stated policy of never granting asylum. Then by criminalising independent reporting of abuses on Nauru and Manus. Can Daragh say the EU (and some member states) are not well down this path?


Chris Bertram 02.04.16 at 8:41 am

The unfortunately named Dipper’s argument is David Cameron’s variation on Peter Singer’s drowning child example. In Singer’s original, if you pass a child drowning in a canal and can rescue the child then you are obliged to do so. In Cameron’s version, you are obliged to let the child drown, so that others are not tempted to play near the water.


David 02.04.16 at 9:04 am

Two points. From a quick look, the document is a draft for consideration by the EU Council – Ministers or their representatives. It’s essentially a call for more cooperation, and it doesn’t, and can’t, criminalise anything. That would be for states.
Second, it’s focused deliberately on those who profit from criminal activity related to smuggling and trafficking, not on this helping them
It’s a fair comment that the EU has got itself very confused over the years about the whole trafficking/people smuggling issue and the rather incoherent style of the text reflects this.


kidneystones 02.04.16 at 9:19 am

The ‘open doors’ policy has triggered a backlash that is very likely to see at least one openly fascist government come to power in Europe. Very few individuals calling for an open doors policy for Europe at large practice an ‘open doors’ policy within their own neighborhoods and spaces they deem ‘theirs.’ I don’t, for example, expect to learn that any of the ‘open doors’ advocates post signs outside the doors of their own homes inviting any and all to enter, bathe, feed themselves from the larder, and camp out in the backyard.

I’d like the world to favor democratic institutions what would make it far easier for individuals to remain in their own nations, protected from persecution by laws. Western intervention, in some cases, has made this less likely. Compelling those living near us to share with strangers seems most unwise. The tilt right sweeping Europe may be more difficult to reverse than many here surmise. The open borders policy of the British New Labour under Blair more than any other factor, imho, will take Britain out of the EU. Most Europeans remain positive about helping people in need. Allowing individuals and individual states to determine for themselves how much and to whom they wish to give is nothing more than ‘treat others, as we might wish to be treated.”

Charity is a choice, not a form of coercion.


Daragh 02.04.16 at 9:56 am

@Peter T – I’m afraid I really can’t see how regulations designed (in my estimation) to ensure the state retains administrative control and co-ordination powers over rescue efforts place us on any kind of slippery slope, and will need a few more dots to be connected before I engage here. However, as David @22 has rather artfully pointed out, in the OP Chris is substantively wrong on the practical implications of the Council’s proposals, the intent behind them and indeed, the competencies of the Council to ‘criminalise’ anything, so the entire discussion is fairly moot at this point.


Dipper 02.04.16 at 10:27 am


The problem is not finding a single child drowning in a canal. It is repeat findings of more and more children drowning in the canal. At some point, surely, you ask the question of how so many are getting there and whether you are being played.

If you put up a sign saying “throw your children in here, we will rescue them” would that be a good or a bad thing to do?


JoB 02.04.16 at 10:42 am


That’s a narrative being heard more and more in the European left. It’s defended by lots of respectable people. They worry about immigration triggering a decay of social security and consequently a mass voter migration to the essence of of national socialism. It’s a worry to take seriously.

Personally, I think the narrative is misguided. First, immigration is not eroding our social security. Fiscal policies are. Second, there’s a big distance between open doors and putting a maximum on the amount of refugees we accept. If the EU would work together to give a refugee a chance to register before hitting the sea, there’s only one thing certain: that there is less incentive to hit the sea. How many people would try to come is something that we’ll see. There are informed voices that believe there would come less. Anyway, the smugglers that will help people hitting the sea, because they know they have no chance of registering, can then be taken on without any risk of confusion with volunteers.

Finally, I’m in Belgium and the whole ‘be realistic’ strategy of the left just accentuated the tendency in public opinion to become more explicitly xenophobic. On one hand, they don’t take voters seriously by thinking they cannot outperform the right wing rhetoric. On other hand, they just float on the voter trend (which they partly created themselves by not going all out and take the risk to support Merkel for instance) believing they need to follow those trends without even trying to giving a voice to a more humanistic point of view.

On both of the hands I guess they’re not taking voters seriously which is where a real risk of fascism comes. It’s the politically incorrect becoming the politically correct. It is money buying rhetoric talent to keep democracy but still have it “their” way too. Because the real threat in this immigration for people with money is that a consensus would grow on there being a need to put more money in social security (and/or UN and/or aid) and to get that money from those who have more and more of it. The real reason why the narrative shifts is that the increasing inequality in the world is threatening the few people who have more.

To me, that’s the real backlash here – further diminishing support for redistribution.


Gareth Wilson 02.04.16 at 10:46 am

In the real world, the general public is strongly discouraged from rescuing drowning people, because they tend to drown themselves, and double the death toll.


kidneystones 02.04.16 at 11:08 am

@ 26 Thank you for the reply. I probably disagree with most of your comment, but nowhere more so than your sense that there is any widespread support for redistribution, unless you’re using the term to describe higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations such as FB and Google that pay almost no tax. Property rights are sacrosanct in much of the west, as is support for capitalism and free enterprise. I’m delighted that most can own their own homes and create businesses, such as magazines, bookstores, grocery stores, garages, etc, and keep much/most of the profit. That some are immensely rich doesn’t bother me a bit, I’d simply like see everyone enjoy the same rights we enjoy in the west. The ‘refugee’ crisis and unbounded borders means that nations in need lose their best and brightest. The flow needs to slow to the point that the only people who leave do so purely out of choice, not out of fear for their lives.


Collin Street 02.04.16 at 11:55 am

I’d simply like see everyone enjoy the same rights we enjoy in the west.

Apart from, you know, the right to be in the west. Because they’re those sorts of people, not like our sorts at all.

[you probably think I’m impugning racism, here. But I’m not; the problem lies with the basic concept of categorisation-of-humans with serious — lethal — consequences riding on it, pretty much regardless of the basis you’re making the division on. Racism is at-core bad because it’s a system of arbitrary categorisation, an exemplar of an entire category none of which are hugely desireable.]


Chris Bertram 02.04.16 at 12:14 pm

Daragh and David: you’ll note that in the linked document, Steve Peers expresses concern that the conflation of trafficking and smuggling may lead to the criminalization of those giving humanitarian assistance and that he calls on the EU to clarify the position. Steve Peers is not just some random commenter.


Daragh 02.04.16 at 12:26 pm

@Chris – that’s certainly a valid point, but I’d argue ‘somewhat vaguely worded EU council of ministers proposal under discussion could in future lead to amateur rescuers being criminalised by member states under certain specific circumstances, presuming of course that no alterations are made to to the document during the process of it’s debate and adoption, which is extremely unlikely’ doesn’t quite justify the tone of the OP. Perhaps it’s just my reading of it. In any case, I stand by my point that the EU and its member states have a legitimate interest in ensuring dangerous rescue operations are carried out and co-ordinated by qualified personnel under state direction, and that this is not something that those concerned by the crisis should find sinister. Indeed, marshaling the resources of volunteers in this manner and directing them towards particularly critical areas seems a good way to ensure as many lives as possible are saved. Presuming the Council of Ministers clarifies it’s position to Peers’ satisfaction, this would appear to be a bit of a storm in a teacup.


kidneystones 02.04.16 at 12:32 pm

@ 29 I’ve no idea at all how you can transform a comment about wealth distribution and property rights into one ‘race.’ You’d be surprised, I think, to learn just how unpopular democracy is many parts of the world. I certainly was. An marketing professor I much respect and who happens to be retiring this week is fond of noting that culture alone is the only real variable. And we can have many cultures within any community. With laws passed with the consent of the governed and an impartial judiciary the number of refugees shrinks. Property rights guarantee creativity and stability. I mean that and nothing more.


JoB 02.04.16 at 12:40 pm

@28 – I have no gripe with property rights at all. I also don’t envy the rich. Redistribution is not a synonym for egalitarianism afaik. Still, if you want your ideal (which I want to: to have people move only out of free choice) it will help if they’re helped out of the excess of some. I guess I am middle class in a high taxation country. Personally I’d be willing to pay more taxes if it results in people being able to make free choices (e.g. by enjoying a proper education). I don’t think it would be fair to have less fortunate people than me pay more. I do think it would be fair for those more fortunate to pay more. That’s all. It’s not that hard a message to convey and I’m pretty sure there’s support for it. It’s not only the right which gets good election results even if they get the best funding.


Chris Bertram 02.04.16 at 12:42 pm

Presuming the Council of Ministers clarifies it’s position to Peers’ satisfaction, this would appear to be a bit of a storm in a teacup.

People offering humanitarian assistance on Lesvos have already been arrested and charged with trafficking offences. That happens at the same time as the EU appears to be conflating trafficking and smuggling. So there’s a real problem now for some people, and there are discussions of future proposals. Generally, it is a good idea to start organizing opposition when plans are first mooted rather than waiting until after the legislative juggernaut has started trundling.


Daragh 02.04.16 at 12:56 pm

@Chris – which authorities have arrested those people and which government made the decision to do so? If it’s the Greek government, then this is really an issue about how Greece is dealing with a massive crisis on it’s borders while simultaneously facing a massive crisis of another sort within. One can absolutely disagree with what’s being done, but I think it is a little disingenuous to conflate decisions that have been taken by Athens as a portent for decisions that may, in future, and after significant debate and amendment be taken by the Council of Ministers. That’s before we get to the issue of the Council’s competency to really criminalise anything in this regard (or that the European parliament also plays a role here, not to mention national governments). And while I share your ‘oppose at the earliest opportunity’ strategy, I also think that making statements as strong as the ones you’ve made above run the risk of discrediting said opposition, and making it easier for anti-refugee arguments to carry the day and associated policies to pass.

As others have noted here, this isn’t a simple issue, and there are real long-term implications for European states accepting large scale refugee populations. I personally believe that the moral duty to protect people fleeing war is an over-riding one in this case. But I also think that the debate needs to be conducted in an open fashion, with a minimum of impugning the intentions or moral calibre of those on the other side, and that if we can’t the net result will be to strengthen Pegida and their ilk.


kidneystones 02.04.16 at 12:59 pm

@ 33 Thank you for the clarification. Agreed. There really are major differences between cultures that make the sort of practical equality impossible for large segments of different communities – particularly in theocratic societies. I do not support cultural hegemony, so I’m not about to justify using force to advance political goals. I do support providing grant money, educators, health-care workers, and NGO assistance to any country in need, on the condition that these regions are largely free of violence. Countries such as Syria that engage in the persecution of minorities, or that are fighting civil wars, should be economically and diplomatically isolated until such time as ceasefires and elections can take place under UN supervision. I realize how old-fashioned these ideas may appear.


David 02.04.16 at 7:03 pm

Just to support Daragh, these sorts of decisions are made by national governments, who have historically been very reluctant to cede powers over them to the EU. Interior/Justice issues are essentially intergovernmental and proceed by cooperation, which is what this document is about. One day, some time, at some point …who knows? But the linked article was clearly written by someone who has no idea how the EU works.


JoB 02.05.16 at 1:42 pm

Well – Europe(an states) pledged money to UNHCR. That is good although this pledging thing is always weird because a. no government ever records a change in budget because of it and b. if reports from UN agencies are accurate pledging and actually giving are two rather loosely correlated words for donor states. Anyway, better than pushing back.

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