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Criminalizing the Humanitarian Sector: Who Protects Humanitarians?

On the 15th of July 2021, Daniel Eichner of In-Sight Collaborative hosted a panel discussion with humanitarian experts Amber Bauer, Seán Binder, and Sue Clayton under the theme Criminalization of Humanitarians. The webinar covered varying aspects of securitization including personal experiences of arrest and detention for providing humanitarian aid. As criminalization of humanitarians by authorities within the European Union is becoming a new security crisis, one wonders: Who will protect humanitarians?

Security and Humanitarian Work

Criminalization and securitization of humanitarians have contributed to immense fear for the safety of both refugees and humanitarian actors. Humanitarian work has become a dangerous social cause as authorities in Greece and Turkey have shifted from commitment to help asylum seekers in tandem with humanitarian organizations into criminalizing humanitarians. This has led to humanitarian workers self-censoring or depending on using local journalists to go on sight and gather information to disseminate on social media, in the hope that it would generate enough circulation for those in need to eventually get assistance.

“The feeling that you haven't helped somebody; the feeling that a baby could potentially be in danger and you’re risking 10 years or 25 years of your own life (if you help) versus the baby potentially surviving is horrific...” - Amber Bauer

The withdrawal of Greek and Turkish authorities from their humanitarian commitment left a gap which was filled by humanitarian organizations and civilians. The pulling back by the authorities was as a result of a shift from the realization of the crisis as a humanitarian disaster, to securitization within the European Union. The overlapping of illegal activities that needed to be curtailed such as smuggling and trafficking of people and humanitarian issues that needed to be ratified contributed to a policy of securitization. The problem stemmed from the perception that a humanitarian approach to a migrant crisis might be a pull factor, hence a hostile approach by authorities.

“The belief is; the safer we make this journey, so if you provide a baby with food and water, we necessarily make the job of the smuggler easier because the safer the journey is, the more readily smugglers can sell their boat trips and these journeys to people seeking asylum.” - Seán Binder

Binder, who himself spent 106 days in pretrial detention after he was arrested and accused of heinous crimes while facilitating search and rescue operations in Lesvos, further observed that "the securitization policies by the European Union via Frontex and its relationship with Libya and Turkey end up producing the necessary factors that facilitate migration."

It’s Illegal to Help

Giving humanitarian aid, assisting other people in rescue efforts and protesting in solidarity with asylum seekers in camps are the three kinds of humanitarian criminalization identified by Sue Clayton.

“There are a lot of cases where people have gone down (got arrested) for allegations of trafficking, yet their concern was physical safety” - Sue Clayton

Securitization and criminalization of humanitarians has led to limited supply of basic aid to those in need. Clayton further observed that “ humanitarians are becoming enemies just like asylum seekers are viewed as enemies''. This has contributed to a sense of insecurity among humanitarians as the fear of being detained without anyone coming to their aid is becoming a possible reality, most of them are starting to pull back from their work to protect themselves.

The criminalization of humanitarians in the European Union is in contradiction with their commitment to partner with humanitarian organizations in developing countries. Sean Binder illuminated the double standard within the European Union by highlighting their unwavering support for humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders in third world countries but criminalizing their activities in the Mediterranean. The European Union is viewed as a champion of humanitarianism only externally but when it comes to internal crises their attitude has become hostile. The panelists concurred on the double standard displayed by the European Union and further observed that the actions of the European Union violates international laws and statutes which they “wrote, co-authored, undersigned and championed”. The prohibition to help asylum seekers and the arbitrary arrest of humanitarians violates protocols that states signed on to, thereby breaching their own laws.

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