The Danish government is threatening to cut funding to the Danish branch of Save the Children in reaction to the Search and Rescue operations (SAR) in the Mediterranean carried out by Save the Children International. It is just the latest attempt to punish civil society for humanitarian action.

The argument is made that saving migrants in the Mediterranean creates incentives for others to attempt the crossing. The heated debate about SAR, international refugee and maritime law, and the duty to rescue continues. But the current of Danish government in this case remains unpersuasive so long as the only alternative offered (at least in the short-term) is to let people drown, supposedly to deter others.

The SAR case shows what happens when institutions and governments fail to act – populations and civil society organisations step up to compensate.

When the response to the global displacement crisis by the EU and its Member States was proven to be inadequate, millions of Europeans responded by filling the gap, either individually or through more or less formal organisations and projects. There is a moral obligation to discuss the limitations and consequences of such initiatives, and not least because the Do No Harm principle requires assessment before acting. However, politicians cannot expect their populations and civil society organisations to simply stand back and silently watch human tragedy unfold at our borders, in our countries, and in our cities.

For example, it is easy for politicians to object to civil action at airports to prevent deportation to Kabul of Afghan asylum seekers, referring to the fact that their cases have been processed and they are not entitled to protection. However, it is more difficult to explain why recognition rates for Afghans are falling even as security deteriorates rapidly in Afghanistan or why the chance of Afghans being granted protection is 2.5% cent in Bulgaria, 35% in the Netherlands and 89% in Switzerland. Or why it is acceptable to deport people to a country they barely know. There are systemic failures here.

It is easy to put a local French farmer on trial for housing Eritrean and South Sudanese refugees and helping them cross the border from Italy. However, it is harder to explain why crossing the border to seek protection makes you “illegal” and those who assist you “criminals” when the right to seek protection is established by international law. And, yes, it is easy to target NGOs’ search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. But it is hard to feel persuaded that the best option is to stand by and allow people to drown at the doorsteps of Europe.

These are all examples of very human responses: civic action that takes place because states and institutions are failing to act – or just failing –  and some find it unacceptable. There are serious protection gaps and civil society and ordinary citizens have decided not to stand by and watch.

Catherine Woollard, ECRE Secretary General


Photo: (cc) jaci XIII, 2016