Human rights association gives up: don’t help and don’t let help

The Mare Liberum association has documented human rights violations. Now he has announced his dissolution. Repression makes work impossible.

A person in an orange life jacket in the water and 3 people with helmets in a dinghy with a motor from the organization Mare Liberum

Activists from Mare Liberum practice sea rescue Photo: Daniel Kubirski/picture alliance

On Monday they gave up: Mare Liberum, a Berlin-based association for human rights monitoring in the Aegean, announced its dissolution. The young activists have not run out of work: Greece is one of the EU countries that, especially since 2020, have openly relied on mass pushbacks by refugees – illegally, with violence, sometimes fatally. The fact that so much is known about this today is also thanks to NGOs like Mare Liberum, whose volunteers made it their task in 2018 to document these human rights violations.

It was, they now write, the “increasing repression” and the “legislation of the right-wing conservative government” that made their work impossible. In order not to endanger the safety of the active members, the association sees itself forced to stop its work. Intimidation, bans on sailing, a “detention order”, the ship was stormed, searched, investigations were initiated – despite such attacks, people continued for a long time. Not anymore: “In Greece, however, a new level has now been reached and leaves us no more room for manoeuvre.”

Flight and migration are increasingly accompanied by violence, disenfranchisement and death. And anyone who draws attention to this is living dangerously: Migrant Defenders, who document violations of human rights and support those in need, are in many places the target of a global system that aims to use violence to control the mobility of people – just like the activists from Mare Liberum. The so-called “shrinking space”, the shrinking scope for action of civil society, is therefore increasingly affecting those who accuse the disenfranchisement of migrants or who fill the vacuum that states leave when it comes to caring for them with practical solidarity.

From legal or spatial restrictions on their actions to defamation campaigns to prison sentences and threats of violence, many facets of political repression are now being used against those who side with refugees and migrants. Even things that are taken for granted, such as the distribution of water or food, legal advice or rescue from distress at sea, are sometimes prosecuted today. The criminalization of the Migrant Defenders has become a central building block in a migration policy geared towards defense.

Migration and Global Inequality

This approach is closely related to global distribution and justice issues. Migration is also an expression of global inequality – people are trying to share in the wealth that is being denied to them and to live in security. And the Global North is trying to prevent this – even though it is increasingly dependent on immigration. The growing influence of authoritarian and extreme right-wing actors has exacerbated the sometimes military closure of destination countries to migrants and refugees in recent years.

The attacks on the helpers complicate their commitment, sometimes wear them down psychologically and destroy economic livelihoods. They bring completely new requirements for the protection of one’s own work, communication and employees. They absorb scarce resources for work. Some NGOs have to close down or severely restrict their work – which means that those who rely on their help suffer.

All of this can be observed not only in autocratic states whose regimes try to maintain their power by violating human rights, but also in some democracies. Because they don’t want witnesses either if they disenfranchise refugees.

The repression against refugee helpers has so far hardly been systematically recorded. Charges, arrests, investigations or the withdrawal of accreditations are not documented anywhere. Individual NGOs are trying to draw a picture of these processes in painstaking detailed work. But this is nothing more than a highlight. In addition, many in authoritarian states shy away from making attacks public for fear of reprisals. The UN therefore speaks of “Secret Defenders”.

Despite all this, the good news is that the repression has had little success so far: the networks of anti-racist solidarity work have grown significantly in recent years, have become more professional and stable. Where individual actors give up or have to give up, new ones usually emerge quickly. The best example is the sea rescue service in the Mediterranean: Although the NGOs there have been struggling with reprisals up to and including charges and confiscation of the ships for years, the rescuers’ fleet today includes more and more modern ships than ever.

Note: The author has written the annual focus on repression against “Migrant Defenders” in the new “Atlas of Civil Society” 2023, which Brot für die Welt presented on Wednesday. This can be downloaded from the NGO’s website.

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