Photograph: Julian Zerressen

In the last few years many EU countries (including the UK, France and Italy) have adopted several laws that criminalise activists who are in solidarity with asylum seekers. By penalising activists in France, the UK and search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, the EU is blocking the right to protest, as well as vital aid.

Volunteer run search and rescue mission IUVENTA has been taken to court by the EU under grounds of people smuggling. The IUVENTA was active in the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy for 13 months before it was seized by Italian authorities. Ten of the IUVENTA crew now wait on the verdict of fifteen year sentences. Similarly, the Stansted 15 have been charged with terrorism for blocking the takeoff of an immigration removal charter flight from Stansted as an act of protest. More recently four activists in France were accused of illegally helping migrants cross the Pyrenees border whilst volunteers in Calais are routinely harassed by police.

In a recent film screening, where clips from the IUVENTA were played at SOAS for the London Migration Film Festival, academic activists called this development ‘the criminalisation of solidarity’. What we are seeing is structural violence at work – racism has informed laws that accost anyone supporting the Other; laws that rely on the logic of targeting people smuggling in order to ‘protect’ asylum seekers, when in affect, they do more harm than good.

We were joined by one of the crew members who claimed, perhaps naively, that ‘anyone should be allowed to be European’. IUVENTA as a documentary is concerned with portraying the mission as a civil society movement born out of the desire to ‘do something’ in the face of EU negligence that had left thousands of asylum seekers stranded at sea. There endeavour was brave, admirable, and necessary, but what the documentary clip did not address was the structural racism that underpins border controls. As such, the self-referential discourse that showed images of brown and black bodied people being saved by white bodied people risked reproducing the asymmetry of these exclusionary laws. In my opinion, all movements (and particularly their images), that struggle to advocate ethical values within the binaries imposed by a racist system, must be self critical.

You could argue that if we get too hung up on symbolism and imagery then nothing will ever change and since these activists are fighting to ‘claim back the right to mobility not just the right not to die’ they deserve our attention. Of course, we should pay attention, of course we should be inspired to start our own civil society movements and of course we should support the IUVENTA crew and The Stansted 15 during their trials. Nonetheless, I do think that we are navigating a site where we must address the not-so-subtle ideas that necessitate the making of tangible laws. If we are not aware of this then there is a real risk that our activism will become redundant when it re-perpetuates restrictive dichotomies.

  • Bella Saltiel is pursuing an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS. She has a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Leeds and she has worked with grassroots and human rights NGOs in Greece, Lebanon and Australia. Her articles have appeared in Teen Vogue, Dazed Digital and Suitcase Magazine. Her interests are feminist and postcolonial approaches to migration, diasporas and political violence. She tweets at @bella_saltiel.
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