A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
Christel from Brussels hosted over 50 migrants over an 18-month period, starting in 2018. An enormous feat, especially considering the 52-year-old shouldered all the costs herself, with the exception of a few donations from friends and family.
Living in a big family home with her two kids, Christel worked out a system in which her guests would sleep on inflatable mattresses in a downstairs area and could hang out together in the common living room. She would also stock one of her two kitchen cupboards with staples so they could make their own food.
“When new people came over, the first thing they’d do is take a shower, do laundry, eat and sleep,” she said. “Sometimes, they’d sleep for two days straight, because they had been up for five nights.” Many initially had their guards up, but would gradually feel more comfortable. “We’d sit at the table and do our best to communicate with gestures,” she said. “Sometimes it was very funny – and most of all, it felt natural.”
Christel initially got involved with refugee aid organisations back in 2018, distributing food and sleeping bags at the migrant camp in Brussels’ Maximilien Park. Gradually, she started getting requests to host people from a local NGO, the Plateforme Citoyenne, but her kids were hesitant about having strangers at home.
Eventually, Christel decided to take in two refugees who were on their way to the UK, for one or two nights a week. But after the first experience went well, her contact asked if she could host three more. “Ultimately, Woadosa, Ibrahim and Salomon [some of her first guests] ended up staying long-term,” she said.
Most of the refugees who stayed with her were from Ethiopia and Eritrea, and generally in the same age group as her own children, between 16 and 29. “They were very devout [Christians] and prayed a lot,” she said.
Christel said her experience was mostly positive, but there were also some tough times. Sometimes, she was overwhelmed with requests. “Once, at Christmas, I ended up with seven migrants at home – that’s just too many people.”
The cost of her solidarity began to pile up. Her water bill ran up to €1,000 a year and her electricity to €240 per month. “It was massive, and there was never any help from the government, of course,” she said. “And yet somehow, you still figure out how to get by.” Friends would run errands for her or give her money, and she’d often be given unsold fresh food from local stores.
Eventually, she decided she had to take a break. Her phone number was circulating in migrant groups and people started showing up unannounced. “We never got a weekend alone as a family,” she said. “Financially and psychologically, it was just too much.”
People like Christel, who lend assistance to migrants, are protected by the 1999 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, explained Elisa de Pieri, researcher at the Europe regional office of Amnesty International. The declaration requires states to guarantee “a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders”, de Pieri said, but individuals and organisations aiding refugees often become the target of laws prohibiting the “facilitation of illegal migration”.
These laws are meant to take action against people smugglers, but in practice they’ve been used against people trying to help, especially since 2016, “when the environment became hostile”. According to a 2020 Amnesty report, between 2015 and 2018 at least 158 people and 16 NGOs have been investigated or prosecuted for facilitating irregular migration. Another list compiled by reporters at Open Democracy found 250 cases in the same time period, mostly in Italy, Greece, France, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Spain. “And the trend is certainly not decreasing,” de Pieri said.
In 2002, the EU tried to harmonise existing anti-smuggling laws across different member states with a directive called the Facilitator’s Package. The package includes protections for humanitarian assistance, but defines it in very vague terms. So even though all EU countries turned it into law, what is considered legal assistance changes from country to country.
Most people prosecuted under anti-smuggling laws were helping migrants at their country’s borders. Italy, for instance, has taken judicial action against NGO rescue boats. France has prosecuted and even convicted volunteers helping migrants at its Alpine border with Italy, where refugees have become lost, injured and even died due to their inexperience with the terrain. Most of these convictions were later overturned on appeal, but the threat of prosecution remains very real.
The Amnesty report also details instances where people were targeted for providing food and shelter to refugees who were already in the country. For example, NGOs in Calais recorded almost 650 incidents of police intimidation from November of 2017 to July of 2018, including unjustified searches, parking fines, ID checks and even 37 cases of physical assaults.
In Switzerland, which is part of the Schengen free-movement area and abides by EU migration laws, pastor Norbert Valley was fined about €900 for feeding and sheltering a man from Togo. In late February of 2021, two elderly Italians who helped migrants allegedly injured by the Croatian police were put under investigation and their homes were raided.
Christel said she also had a scary encounter with the authorities. “Once, I was stopped with Ibrahim in the car. We’d gone to retrieve his phone at a police station in Antwerp because the cops had confiscated it.” Phones are an important lifeline for migrants, as the only way to for them to communicate with friends and families and organise their stays. Christel said the police often take migrants’ phones, jackets and shoes when they stop them, often without explaining why.
Once at the police station, Christel was accused of human trafficking and questioned for hours. The police also demanded access to her phone. Eventually, she managed to clear things up. But after they let her go, the police allegedly still made a last attempt to get Ibrahim to name one of his traffickers, promising him legal papers in exchange. “That was clearly abuse of power,” she said.
Although the trend at national level is discouraging, de Pieri thinks EU institutions are making some progress. In December of 2020, the European Commission published its New Pact for Migration, which states that rescue at sea should not be criminalised. “Alas, it's not legally binding,” de Pieri said, “but it is an official interpretation of how the directive should be applied.” This means that public prosecutors in EU countries should use it when deliberating a case.
Christel said she’s happy she could help and that she’d do it all over again. “During the war, Jews needed smugglers to help them, and those people were considered heroes,” she said. “Instead, we as a society have this weird, collective amnesia about immigrants' plight. It’s scary, and it’s disgusting.”