On May 7th, 2021, I sat in the police station in Chios, Greece. I was under arrest (though the authorities might deny that) on the premise of my name coming up in a "search", and as a result of that my electronic devices were to be seized by order of a prosecutor in Mytelini, a place I have not been since 2016. I was not allowed to call my lawyer despite asking multiple times. I was subjected to an unthorough but invasive strip search. They took my work phone, personal phone, my laptop, and my diary. I have since appointed three different lawyers and no one has been given full access to my file yet. I am still in the dark about why I was stopped, what their intentions are with me and my devices, and what this means for me in the eyes of the law.
In the days, weeks, and months that have followed, I have been called a criminal, a hero and everything in between. I was told this was a badge of honor, though I don't see how being short thousands of dollars in devices, changed travel plans, legal fees, and now living in constant anticipation and anxiety is something to don with pride. The consensus, and my gut feeling, is that this is a large intimidation tactic by the authorities to try and prevent me and my colleagues from continuing our work supporting asylum seekers and refugees and advocating for human rights. This practice of criminalizing or threatening to criminalize humanitarians has become so widespread and problematic that the sector and those in it have started to accept that this is part of the job. Another hoop we need to jump through or hurdle we need to clear to keep up our already exhausting, stressful, dangerous, and morally injurious work.
Today we observe World Humanitarian Day, and I want to use this day to highlight the absolute ordinary humanity of the people we call humanitarians.
Humanitarians are people, too. We must recognize them as normal, fallible, flawed, and authentic human beings who also need support and help. As humanitarian crises around the world intensify due to the pandemic and increasing instability and the new challenge of climate migration is already upon us, helping the helpers must move to the forefront of the agenda or we are at risk of losing infinite amounts of wisdom, experience, and skills that humanitarians have spent years cultivating. I want to engage in these issues in a more authentic way. I want to come down from this pedestal we were never asked to be put on.
Who are the humanitarians?
Humanitarians, put simply, are everyday people who participate in humanitarian action. While we are often tempted to look at big names like Doctors Without Borders, we can't forget the extraordinary selflessness that local communities who are on the frontlines of humanitarian crises demonstrate to address immediate needs of fellow human beings. We also can't forget the work that those affected by disaster and displacement do to help their own communities. I would argue that these people, who adapt so quickly when given no other choice, are better and more inspiring humanitarians than people like myself who can pick and choose which disaster we play a role in and how we will do that.
Why are the Humanitarians in Danger?
“By rescuing refugees and migrants in danger at sea or in the mountains, offering them food and shelter, documenting police and border guard abuses, and opposing unlawful deportations, human rights defenders have exposed the cruelty caused by immigration policies and have become themselves the target of the authorities. Authorities and political leaders have treated acts of humanity as a threat to national security and public order, further hindering their work and forcing them to divest their scarce resources and energy into defending themselves in court.”
- Amnesty International
Many may not be as surprised by the arrests of search and rescue (SAR) volunteers at international borders. These are contested issues and complex contexts unfolding in real time. Lives are on the line, tensions are high; these are true disaster zones. General observers may also be lulled into a false sense of security thinking that anyone volunteering within "civilized" countries in the European Union or more traditionally Western regions will have their rights respected and have access to just and equal treatment before the law. In recent times, this has started changing.
Multiple arrests and large intimidation ploys by authorities have recently rocked the grassroots volunteer community. Criminalization is not just being used against SAR teams working in contentious areas- everyday people in communities along the migratory pathway have been arrested for simply housing other human beings or providing them with food and water. The basis of these arrests, charges, and accusations are weak and unfounded, but their impact is felt. What once felt like a safe and cohesive space of solidarity and meaningful action has become a fragmented grassroots movement where people second guess everything and everyone.
This trend, if not quickly addressed soon, could have deadly impacts. Many SAR organizations stopped their operations on the island of Lesvos and other regions of the Mediterranean following the arrest of volunteers in 2018 including the well-known swimmer Sarah Mardini whose sister Yusra just competed in the Olympics on Team Refugee. Also arrested with Sarah was rescue diver Sean Binder, who had studied migration policy and now knows better than most how this switch in the political narrative from humanitarian mode to border securitization impacts those of us still trying to uphold the first and prevent needless deaths at sea.
“At the outset, it was recognized that this was a humanitarian disaster - the Mediterranean is now the deadliest sea in the world because so many people have perished in its waters. But there was a shift away from that to a shift of securitization and we view this issue primarily through the prism of security. That is to say that there is principally an issue of smuggling and trafficking and illegal activity and the border. And while that necessarily overlaps with the humanitarian issue and migration, the primary focus is that this is illegal activity that should be stopped rather than this is a humanitarian catastrophe that should be remedied or helped.” - Sean Binder
The obvious consequence of criminalizing asylum seekers is the subsequent criminalization of anyone coming to their aid.
I now join Sean, Sarah, and nearly two hundred other everyday humanitarians in Europe who are being formally investigated, accused, or even charged with heinous crimes including smuggling, espionage, spying, money laundering, harboring illegals, or smaller offenses like disturbing the peace. This doesn't include the hundreds - if not thousands - of undocumented incidents of police intimidation being used as a tactic to deter humanitarian intervention. Although this is not the first you will have heard about this issue from us at In-Sight Collaborative, I can assure you that this will not be the last. Criminalizing humanitarian action is a slippery slope that it seems we have already to start sliding down at a dangerous pace. The audacity of authorities has not been made any better by the COVID-19 pandemic. Public awareness and a call for accountability from authorities to closely monitor for incidents of abuse of power is desperately needed right now to combat this issue. You can learn more by watching our webinar "Criminalizing Humanitarianism"
Aside from the obvious threats to humanitarians' physical safety, an internal battle is waged daily that causes far more destruction than the threat of criminalization and arrests ever could.
Moral injury is a concept that originated in studies on combat veterans. Those returning from deployment overseas in conflict zones didn't necessarily fit the diagnostic criteria for PTSD or other trauma-related disorders but nonetheless expressed and displayed severe psychological distress. A new conversation emerged following the expressions of veterans who served in the Vietnam War around a different type of psychological wound. One that manifests in feelings of guilt, shame, or betrayal rather than fear.
Moral injury is now loosely identified and defined as ‘an injury to an individual's moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression, which produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger and profound "moral disorientation".’
While the current academic literature on this topic is still heavily weighted towards combat veterans, moral injury indicators have been identified in frontline workers like medical professionals, first responders, journalists, and humanitarians. Anyone who experiences what experts call a 'potentially morally injurious event' are at risk for developing the symptoms of moral injury which again, tend to manifest in feelings of guilt, shame, or betrayal of our moral code through either an action we are forced to perform that transgresses our moral code, or being prohibited from acting in the way we feel is right. While moral injury is not (yet) a medical diagnosis, it has been identified as a contributing or even causative factor of other psychological disorders and absolutely cultivates periods of deep emotional distress in anyone who experienced morally injurious events. As a humanitarian I face dozens of these a day. I know many of my colleagues feel the same.
Helping the Helpers
So how can we better support the humanitarians who have undoubtedly experienced extreme assaults on their moral code throughout their work and are at risk of developing symptoms of moral injury or other psychological disorders?
1- Advocate for us. Many grassroots humanitarians are volunteers and either spend our own savings to be here or live off of basic living stipends. We do not have consistent income, we do not have benefits or a safety net provided by our employers. We do not have easy access to free counseling. We do not have paid time off (although some NGOs who can afford it have mandatory R&R). Advocate for more systemic support for grassroots organizations and those running them. These community-level movements that promote mutual aid and are often led by authentic voices that truly represent the affected populations. We will be nothing without these movements.
2- Hold safe spaces. Understand that those of us who work in humanitarian contexts experience lots of potentially morally injurious events and will likely return to you a different person than when we left. Hold space for that. Please do not try to cram us back into the mold we fit before we left. Hold space for our anger and grief and for the new person we have become.
2- Join us. Come alongside us. Not necessarily on the frontlines. I recognize that this kind of work is not appropriate for everyone. But solidarity practice comes in a wide range of involvement and even supporting us in small ways like re-sharing our social media posts or content, donating to or sharing causes we believe in, or just inviting us for a cup of coffee or a drink to hear about our work are small but impactful ways to show your solidarity.
Humanitarian action is so much more than the provision of coordinated rescue efforts or tedious aid distributions. Humanitarian action is simply the outcome of basic compassion and empathy for fellow human beings.
My final call to action this World Humanitarian Day is to ask you to join me in adapting this mindset and applying it to your everyday life.
There is a popular phrase that reads something like "instead of building a higher wall, build a longer table" - there is always a seat for you at ours here at In-Sight Collaborative!