Round table meeting in the European Parliament on the EU Facilitation Directive

On 15 November we held a round table meeting in the European Parliament, entitled ‘The EU Facilitation Directive: Protecting the right to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants & refugees’ (see photos). The event was co-hosted by with Members of the European Parliament Carlos Coelho (EPP), Elly Schlein (S&D), Cecilia Wikström (ALDE), and Judith Sargentini (Greens/EFA). The fact that MEPs from across different political groups co-hosted with us, and that 132,680 people across all EU Member States signed a petition against criminalising humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees, demonstrates that this is an issue that concerns people and unites them across political and national borders.

‘What is often referred to as a migration crisis for the EU, is on the contrary a crisis for the thousands of people fleeing war and persecution…We should use the opportunity in these ‘Trumpified days’ to be more firm on human rights’, said Cecilia Wikström MEP in her opening remarks.

State of play

‘Volunteers providing humanitarian assistance are the best face of Europe, they make a huge difference by offering a blanket and a smile to migrants and refugees, said Elly Schlein. Jennifer Allsopp, independent researcher and co-author of the European Parliament study on the Facilitation Directive highlighted the discrepancies in implementation in Member States, and that its ambiguity has a chilling effect on those providing humanitarian assistance. Ms Allsopp made a historical comparison between Danes helping Jews to Denmark after World War II without being sanctioned, with today’s Hungarian taxi drivers being prosecuted for driving migrants. Manuel Blanco, a fire chief in Sevilla in Spain and the founder of the volunteer organisation ‘Professional Emergency Aid’ (PROEM-AID) told participants how he and his colleagues were cooperating with the Greek coast guard and supporting their work by rescuing lives of people off the coast of the island of Lesbos, until one day the Greek government prosecuted them for human smuggling. (The court case is pending, and they could face a sentence of ten years’ imprisonment, watch their video here). Mr Blanco explained that it is a global matter of being able to help people from drowning and children from dying from the cold, and a personal matter of him being able to tell his children that he did not stay silent and watch people die. ‘If I am able to help save thousands of lives with little means, the EU should be able to do much more’, said Mr Blanco.

Ways forward

‘We simply cannot watch people dying at sea’, said Carlos Coelho MEP, explaining that we have international obligations but it is obviously not enough, we also need legal certainty. Paula Schmid Porras, a researcher and lawyer representing PROEM-AID, has submitted a petition to the Petition Committee in the European Parliament calling for the Facilitation Directive’s humanitarian clause to be changed to say that Member States ‘shall’ exempt humanitarian assistance from sanctions, whereas it currently says they ‘may’ exclude them. Legal certainty would make a difference and would allow national authorities to focus on criminalising profit-making smugglers, instead of NGOs and volunteers providing humanitarian assistance. It is absurd that Spanish civil servants, such as Mr Blanco and his colleagues, are being criminalised for supporting overburdened Greek civil servants, said Ms Schmidt Porras.

As the European Commission has yet to publish the conclusions of its evaluation on the Facilitation Directive, we very much welcomed the participation of Dana Spinant, Head of Unit ‘Irregular Migration, Return and Readmission’ at DG Migration and Home Affairs, who shared the preliminary findings. Ms Spinant stated that the Facilitation Directive is only one aspect of the bigger issue regarding the root causes of migration and a common European asylum system. While Ms Spinant did not say straight out that the Commission will not propose a revision of the Facilitation Directive, she provided several arguments for why such a revision would be difficult. Firstly, the EU has limited power and can only establish minimum rules, and the decision lies with Member States. Six Member States have introduced laws to ensure that humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees is not sanctioned (Italy, Greece, Spain, Malta, Belgium and Finland). Secondly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution as there is no agreed EU definition of humanitarian assistance. Thirdly, the Commission’s research and public consultation has been unable to identify widespread evidence of prosecution of humanitarian assistance. The Commission is therefore questioning whether there are better ways to care for the interests of humanitarian actors. With this said, the Commission is still welcoming additional evidence from civil society, which could change their conclusion.

Ms Spinant’s intervention was followed by several questions from participants, such as: how many cases are enough for the Commission to consider a revision of the Directive? If the Commission is not accountable, who is? Why were the firemen from PROEM-AID criminalised if Greece is one of the six Member States that excludes humanitarian assistance from sanctions? What alternative instruments can be used? Judith Sargentini MEP expressed her worry that as we are going from bad to worse in terms of EU legislation on migration and asylum, will opening the Facilitation Directive lead to an improvement or a deterioration? Ms Spinant responded that the Commission is still evaluating the Directive, that it has restricted power and that ultimately it is up to Member States to decide how to treat humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, the Commission is currently in the process of reviewing its asylum system (read more).

Olga Vukovic, Senior Campaigner at concluded the meeting on behalf of the 132,680 people across all EU Member States that have signed a petition demanding decriminalisation of humanitarian assistance. WeMove will evaluate what the Commission’s upcoming proposal before determining their next step. Regardless, the topic will remain a priority for people across the EU, said Ms Vukovic.