Refugee aid workers have received awards around the world for their service. Just this April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel honored hundreds of volunteers, inviting them to the Chancellery. "Yet, there is a dark side to aid as well, one not often discussed in the media," says Pavel Trantina, president of the European Economic and Social Committee.
In EU member states like Spain, Denmark and Hungary, people illegally aiding refugees within national borders by helping them travel, or offering them shelter, could face legal punishment for violating the law. Many such instances fall under the purview of judges at the national level. Jennifer Allsopp, an immigration researcher at Oxford University, explains that the problem lies in the definition of the term "humanitarian help." The interpretation of the "humanitarian clause" remains at the discretion of judges at the national level.
"Critics say that volunteers trying to find safe routes for immigrants have blood on their hands, because their work only encourages more immigrants to undertake the journey," says Allsopp. "That is a perverse logic. Because in the end, those volunteers are simply trying to safeguard human dignity."
The United Nations defines human trafficking as an act motivated by "financial or material gain." Yet that is not legally binding in Denmark. European guidelines also allow member states to decide whether to classify refugee aid as "humanitarian aid" or to criminalize it. According to police statistics, charges were brought against some 300 people in Denmark between September 2015 and February 2016.
On September 7, 2015, Lisbeth Zornig witnessed a bizarre spectacle in the news: Hundreds of men, children and pregnant women were walking along the freeway from the Danish island Lolland toward the Swedish border. They walked past police, who silently watched as the refugees went by. Zornig decided to invite a Syrian family - four adults and two children - to get into her car. At home in Copenhagen, her husband offered the Syrians coffee, tea and cinnamon rolls. Later, he drove them to the train station, where he bought them tickets to Sweden. The Washington Post newspaper portrayed them as human traffickers. On March 11, 2016, a court in Falster, Denmark, issued the couple a fine of 45,000 Danish Kroner - roughly 6,000 euros ($6,700).
When the body of the young Syrian refugee Ailan washed up onto the beach in Bodrum, Turkey, in the fall of 2015, Manuel Blanco, Enrique Rodriguez and Julio Latorre decided they could no longer stand by and watch the refugee tragedy go on unimpeded. The three Spanish firemen traveled to Greece in December 2015 to work as volunteers helping save refugees from drowning for the NGO Proem Aid on the island of Lesbos. Later they were brought before a Spanish judge who sentenced them to up to 10 years in prison for the illegal transportation of immigrants.