AT LAST week’s Fire Brigades Union conference Britain’s firefighters showed their solidarity with a Spanish comrade, Miguel Roldan, who could spend years in an Italian prison for saving lives.
It’s firefighters’ job to rescue people from life-threatening situations and many of those in the hall who applauded Roldan will have had experience of putting their lives on the line for others.
They will have understood the sense of duty that saw Roldan set out to rescue refugees drowning in the Mediterranean despite the considerable dangers he faced.
What’s harder to understand is the fact that one of those risks was prosecution. And not prosecution resulting in a fine or slap on the wrist.
Roldan faces a potential 20 years behind bars if convicted, the same sentence handed down on Friday to a neonazi child abuser for conspiracy to murder an MP.
The shocking report released by Open Democracy at the weekend shows that, across Europe, governments are criminalising acts of solidarity and compassion.
In Germany, four pastors had their homes raided, phones and documents seized and remain subject to a police investigation — for allowing refugees from Sudan to sleep in their churches.
In France, retired lecturer Claire Marsol, 71, drove a young boy and his mother between two French train stations; her home was raided and she was handcuffed and detained for 24 hours.
Greece jailed a German pensioner couple for allowing refugees to board their boat, initially for 16 years and six months each, though the sentences were later reduced.
At the forefront of this shameful crackdown on solidarity and compassion is Italy, where far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is seeking a law that would fine rescuers a crippling €5,500 (£4,800) for every refugee saved from drowning who is subsequently embarked on Italian soil.
Salvini has form, having cynically muddied the distinction between saving lives and trading in them.
Mayor of Riace Domenico Lucano was put under house arrest for helping migrants to stay in Italy (he welcomed hundreds to the village), has been banned from setting foot in the settlement he is elected to lead and faces charges of assisting illegal immigration and fraud. He has also endured a personal campaign of terror which has included being shot at and having two of his dogs poisoned.
Human rights lawyer Paula Schmid Porras affirms that many European governments now use “laws intended for international criminal organisations that are earning money from trafficking, smuggling, prostitution and slavery” to prosecute volunteers who render humanitarian assistance to “illegals.”
She argues that criminalising people for helping others “violates all human rights conventions since the second world war.”
This will not bother Mussolini fan Matteo Salvini. But German activist Karl Kopp has observed that these crackdowns both predate the recent surge in support for the far right across Europe and are being implemented by governments of the so-called “centre” and, in Greece, of the supposed left.
As far back as 2009, Silvio Berlusconi’s government endorsed a Northern League initiative where police conducted house-to-house searches for illegal immigrants through December, a clampdown with the sinister moniker Operation White Christmas.
The parties of the status quo in Europe cannot match the celebration of cruelty epitomised by Salvini or his French ally Marine Le Pen (whose Saturday speech saying Europe was being “submerged” by immigrants was particularly offensive, given the actual drowning of thousands in the Mediterranean).
But they have enacted similar policies and bear a huge responsibility for permitting the rise of racism both by failing to challenge it and by enforcing decades of austerity that have spread insecurity and fear.
Only the socialist left can lead the fight against racism. Like the FBU, we must stand up in defence of refugees and those who help them.
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