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Picking ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ While the Orchard Burns: the Costs of Policing Humanitarian Actors in Italy and Greece as a Strategy to Prevent Migrant Smuggling

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A Correction to this article was published on 17 March 2021

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Civil society organizations and individual volunteers were in many instances the first responders to the so-called ‘European humanitarian refugee crisis’. From 2015 onwards, they were celebrated by some as heroes. Meanwhile, during this same period, national and EU law enforcement agencies served to relabel civil society actors across a range of contexts as potential ‘migrant smugglers’–direct facilitators of conduits of irregular migrant flows, or a pull-factor by default through their services. The shift in rhetoric was met with a shift in policing practices: in Italy and Greece, among other EU member states, humanitarian acts were reframed from life-saving obligations to be met and commended, to administrative–and in some cases—criminal risks to be monitored, deterred and punished. This article builds on previous research to consider how since 2018, civil society actors in Italy and Greece have faced increasing demands and pressures for registration, coordination and financial transparency, and how these have profound repercussions on humanitarian and human rights work with, for and by refugees and other migrants. The article outlines four main opportunity costs of the policing of humanitarian actors as a strategy to prevent mobility of refugees and other migrants. Firstly, such measures pose a threat to civil society’s independence and impartiality from government interference; in doing so, they impact the efficiency of operations and disincentivize certain humanitarian actors from conducting life-saving work. Secondly, they have repercussions on trust between the law enforcement and civil society which may lessen the chances of migrants and those that serve them from sharing crucial information to stop and investigate ongoing violent crimes. Thirdly, this strategy leads to the politicization of the criminal justice system which undermines public faith in liberal democracy. Finally, resources channelled into investigating civil society actors funnel away resources from the focus on high-profile criminality. Given the pervasive human rights abuses committed against irregular migrants and asylum seekers, we argue that this misdirected policy equates to picking ‘low-hanging fruit’ while the orchard burns.

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All except interviews were publicly available. Interview notes and transcripts held by authors were not publicly available and anonymized.

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  1. The Temporary Humanitarian Directive was never activated by the EU Council and the Directive on EU Humanitarian Visas is still pending. Humanitarian visas were not widely used at the national level either. Few church-led initiatives allowed for very limited ‘protected entry’ initiatives. Some asylum seekers meanwhile managed to use family reunion or other legal migration schemes. Resettlement from third countries into the EU Member States also remains limited.

  2. Back in 2015–2016, when saving lives was still celebrated as moral victory, Frontex statistics were different. Any rescue, conducted by Italian coastguards, Guardia di Finanza, EUNAVFOR MED, NGOs and private merchant ships, were counted as successes of Frontex Joint Operation Triton. Since everyone rescued technically had been disembarked in Operation Triton, they were also counted in JO Triton statistics as ‘persons disembarked’. In many cases, SAR NGOs would transfer the rescued people to the vessels of Operation Triton that essentially were Italian and foreign vessels paid by the EU to do so within the European Migration Agenda.

  3. In December 2019, the active NGOs in the Mediterranean were Sea-Eye and Proemaid which operated the vessel Alan Kurdi, MSF and SOS Méditerranée with the vessel Ocean Viking, as well as Proactiva Open Arms operating the boat Open Arms. The vessel Sea-Watch 3 was released by an Italian Civil Court in December, although it has not yet resumed activities. Two NGOs who were active throughout 2019, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Mission Lifeline, were recently impeded from continuing their work by Italian authorities. Meanwhile Reqship, operating the vessel Josepha, stopped its activities in October to be resumed in Spring 2020.

  4. The new amendment, so-called Security Decree Bis, came into force in the second half of 2019.


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The authors would like to acknowledge the guidance of Dr. Sergio Carrera, during the project. At CEPS, in cooperation with PICUM, we completed two studies for the European Parliament on the EU Facilitators Package in 2016 and its update in 2018 that included media monitoring. Thanks to the UK’s ESRC research grant, we published a book on ‘Policing Humanitarianism’ and an academic article in the International Journal of Migration and Borders Studies. Our methods involved field research (2017 - 2018) to Italy, Greece, the UK/France, Hungary (89 interviews and 2 focus groups: one with civil society and one with law enforcement, judicial and asylum authorities), an online survey (114 respondents) and the gathering of testimonies. We have scaled-up the impact of our research throughout the ReSOMA, EU funded Horizon 2020 project, in cooperation with Migration Policy Group, PICUM, ECRE, Social Platform, Eurocities, Erasmus University Rotterdam and ISMU. Throughout 2 years of the ReSOMA project, we have designed a unique method on how to engage with criminalized individuals, their lawyers, humanitarian and human rights organizations that are working in the field, and organizations that are doing advocacy at EU, regional and the UN levels, at so-called Transnational Feedback Meetings (convoked twice: one in 2018 and one in 2019). We build our argument on the ReSOMA project findings. This project convoked two Task Forces (convoked in 2018 and in 2019) with EU institutions, agencies and international organizations, where we identified and subsequently addressed underlying challenges or assumptions of policymakers on the topic of criminalization of solidarity (Vosyliūtė and Conte 2018, 2019a, 2019b, 2019c) and strategic litigation (Conte and Binder 2019, Vosyliūtė 2019). We would therefore like to thank all our partners and participants, who contributed in these events and whose contributions influenced this article. Finally, we would like to thank Dr. Gabriella Sanchez, for the invitation to contribute to this special journal issue and for her ongoing support of our work.


The UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant. Also studies for the European Parliament and throughout ReSOMA Horizon 2020 project.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Allsopp.

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The original version of this article unfortunately contained a mistake. Three references were not included in the original publication. The three references that need including are as follows and these are now reflected in the Original Paper as well: Vosyliūtė, L., & C. Conte (2018), Vosyliūtė, L., & C. Conte (2019a), and Vosyliūtė, L., & C. Conte (2019b).

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Allsopp, J., Vosyliūtė, L. & Brenda Smialowski, S. Picking ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ While the Orchard Burns: the Costs of Policing Humanitarian Actors in Italy and Greece as a Strategy to Prevent Migrant Smuggling. Eur J Crim Policy Res 27, 65–88 (2021).

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