top of page

The alchemy of history: Mirroring the past, recent charges put humanity on trial by discouraging acts of decency towards migrants


The Saint-Malo monument in Jersey is as a tribute to the rescue operation that saved hundreds from a shipwreck in the Channel Islands. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

How far would you go to help another human? This question is deceivingly simple; the answer less so. Before responding, please ask yourself the following:

‘Would you give someone a toothbrush and soap?’


‘Would you give someone in need a lift in your car?’


‘Would you help find someone a place to stay?’ 


‘Would make sure someone would not face torture? 


‘Would you try to rescue someone you saw drowning in the water or give them a blanket upon arrival’?


‘Would you make sure that person arrived safely on solid ground?’

The point of this exercise is not to meet all of the criteria. The point is that if you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, your actions range from superfluous to possibly criminal. 


‘Would you give someone a toothbrush and soap?’

Recently, a government lawyer in the US argued that leaving migrant children to sleep on slabs of concrete without access to soap or toothbrushes might meet the conditions of being safe and sanitary as established in the 1997 settlement agreement on the required treatment of detained minors. 

‘Would you give someone in need a lift in your car?’

In 2016, around 230 people in Denmark were charged with smuggling or assisting ‘illegal transit’ for actions that ranged from giving Syrians a coffee and a lift across Denmark to a lift on boat to neighbouring Sweden. The couple who gave a Syrian family a lift and coffee was charged with ‘people smuggling’ by the High Court in Denmark. Additionally, a 72-year-old lecturer was fined 1,500 euro for driving a young woman and a teenager from Nice to the Antibes station in France. Furthermore, a French alpine guide faces five years in prison for helping a pregnant Nigerian woman with her family across the snow from Italy to France. This list is by no means exhaustive.

‘Would you help find someone a place to stay?’ 

Only four out of eight of the people in Belgium who had hosted asylum-seekers on their way to the UK in their homes were acquitted of charges of ‘illegal trafficking’. Similarly, Fernand Bosson, mayor of Onnion, France, was fined 1,500 euro for housing a family after their asylum claim had been refused.

‘Would you make sure someone would not face torture? 

In 2016, two Icelandic women were briefly arrested for trying to gain the support of the passengers on a plane to prevent the removal of a Nigerian man. In 2019, Elin Ersson, a Swedish student, faced a fine for live-streaming an attempt to stop an Afghan man from being deported. Before the verdict was overturned, the Stansted 15 had previously been convicted of a terrorism-related offence for chaining themselves around a plane that was about to deport several individuals to countries where they risked of receiving degrading treatment.

‘Would you try to rescue someone you saw drowning in the water or give them a blanket upon arrival’?


A Syrian activist, Sarah Mardini, who successfully swam her boat to shore with her sister (later a member of the 2016 Refugee Olympic Team), was imprisoned for 107 days for her involvement with the Emergency Response Centre in Lesbos, Greece. Though she and another volunteer, Sean Binder, were recently released, they still might face charges of up to 25 years for facilitating people smuggling, espionage and money laundering for providing immediate assistance to migrants.

A search and rescue vessel, the Iuventa, operated by the NGO Jugend Rettet, was ‘pre-emptively’ seized on Lampedusa, Italy, in 2017 to avoid criminal activity. 10 members of its crew, the Iuventa10, are still awaiting trial to decide whether they will be convicted to 20 years in prison for aiding illegal immigration.

‘Would you make sure that person arrived safely on solid ground?’


Carola Rackete, captain of the Sea-Watch III, was immediately placed under house arrest for docking a ship with rescued migrants onboard against the wishes of the Italian government. Though a Sicilian Court found that she had not broken the law when docking, she still could face charges of endangering the lives of police officers and aiding illegal immigration.

*  *  *

The criminalisation trend is supported by the 2002 EU Facilitators Package, consisting of a directive and framework decision requiring member states of the EU to prosecute anyone suspected of aiding illegal entry, transit, or stay in the European Union. A key difference with the Smuggling Protocol of the UN is that the prosecution for the first two reasons no longer has to prove a motivation of profit.

The borders between rulebreaker and hero have always been blurry. History has always been an alchemist, ready to convert punishable deeds into the brave acts that humans depend on to make uncomfortable yet necessary changes. History turns criminals into the vital substance of chronicles of history around the world. This alchemy depends on landmark legal cases, unexpected critical junctures, or the slow brew of public opinion. Through any one of these, hubris, folly, or insolence becomes the indispensable fuel of heroes. 


Harriet Tubman, also dubbed ‘Moses’ for her involvement in helping thousands of escaping slaves through a series of safe houses called ‘the underground railway’, was once on the wrong side of the U.S Congress Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This law heavily punished those aiding escape, placing a heavy reward for her capture that lingered over her head. Now, most would agree with Frederick Douglas’ statement that ‘The midnight sky and the silent stars have been witnesses of [her] devotion to freedom and of [her] heroism’. 

In 1940, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul general to Lithuania, disobeyed orders to issue around 2000 visas for Jews in Lithuania to have safe passage out through Japan. For more than a month, Sugihara and his wife stayed up, writing visas, and he continued to do so from his train window as he left the city following the closing of the consulate. After he and his family were imprisoned by the Soviet forces that had invaded Romania, he was forced by the Japanese government to resign. Before his death, he was named ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by the Israeli government.

Herald Edelstein, in 1973, was one of the diplomats to give protection and safe passage via embassies in Chile to Cuban, Bolivian, Uruguayan and Chilean nationals labelled ‘enemies of the regime’ in the wake of the coup. He was declared a persona non grata in 1973 by the Chilean government; in 2019, he was portrayed in the Finnish-Chilean television series ‘Invisible Heroes’.

*  *  *

Previously inconceivable changes in politics and public opinion are possible. But there are currently lives in the balance at sea, in detention centres or on the move that do not have the luxury of days, let alone that of the slow clock-hands of history. 

Governments are fully aware that the reality is that not all people would be ready to face the threat of incarceration. That is nothing of which to be ashamed. However, playing on that fear is an attempt to obfuscate the fact that a person saving another human’s life should not have to pause to ponder whether the act is worth facing jail time. International maritime law states that there is a duty to save lives at sea. No court or threat of arrest should be able to bury this obligation. 


Not all of us are brave enough (or have the expertise!) to sail a ship into an uncertain fate to save the lives of those rescued on board. Not all of us have to be. The danger is another. The danger is that continuous arrests, accusations, and court cases are going to give us reason to hesitate before giving a lift to someone in need, offering someone a toothbrush, or rescuing someone from the water. 

Arrests do make for more sensational news and debate, but they cannot overshadow the responsibility of the EU and its members to resume their programme of rescue at sea and to put in place a system that efficiently and evenly decides a safe port of entry. This must go beyond merely critiquing Italy’s recent emergency decrees and response to judicial proceedings, and aim to provide an effective and shared response across the European Union.


In the meantime, all of us need to do our part to prove that helping humans is not the exclusive domain of heroes; it is everyone’s responsibility. Give someone a lift! Hand out a blanket! Speak out on someone’s behalf! After all, the alchemy of history also depends on public opinion.

Hannah Markay

Hannah completed a M.A. in Social Anthropology and Politics at the University of Edinburgh, with a year abroad in Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. During her MSc. in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, she focused primarily on alternative safe and legal pathways for mobility. After the master’s she interned at Generations For Peace in Amman, Jordan, where she currently works, and Mediterranean Hope’s Observatory on Migration in Lampedusa, Italy. She enjoys hiking, anything involving bodies of water, and questioning what it means to be a hospitality-accepting vegetarian.

puerro largo.png

You might also like...

pexels-skitterphoto-735795 (1).jpg

Looking back to see beyond: Rediscovering empowering historical legacies on the EU's Free Movement of Persons


Safe, orderly, regular


Ocean currents: Riding the flow of history through one tiny village in Madagascar

bottom of page