Solidarity is not a crime: the Observatory of the Milan Charter is born
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On 30 September 2017 around thirty activists, journalists, jurists, citizens acting in solidarity, members of NGOs and associations met in Milan to set up the Observatory which the 'Milan Charter: solidarity is not a crime' proposed in its document launched on 20 May 2017 during the demonstration 'Together without any walls', to safeguard the honour, freedom and rights of civil society in all its humanitarian expressions: when it saves lives at sea; when it protects and rescues people experiencing hardships at the borders; when it monitors respect for the principles of legality and equality; when it reports the failure to respect fundamental rights in procedures for administrative detention and forced removals; when it complies with the binding duty of solidarity which is a foundation of the Italian Constitution.
The people who drafted and signed the Charter are alarmed by evidence that the activities of independent monitoring, testimony and acts of solidarity by civil society - which constitute an essential guarantee for democratic life - are at risk, in Italy and in Europe. Instead of being protected and encouraged, the autonomy of activists acting in solidarity has been undermined by an intensifying process of criminalisation. We have witnessed the attempt to curb NGOs' activities through a code of conduct that sought to do away with their independent nature, systematic attacks against the possibility of enacting rescues at sea, trials against citizens who were "guilty" of offering assistance to refugees, charges against people who express dissenting opinions for "contempt for the institutions", the issuing of bylaws which prohibited giving food to refugees and the adoption of 'fogli di via' (orders to leave a town and not to return there for a specified period) which forbid activists from returning to border towns for three years.
We are witnessing a passage of historic importance, in which we are being made aware of how fragile the subsistence of the rule of law is and of how it is now possible, for democratic citizens, for 'good people', to name what - in spite of its long period of gestation and nourishment - had so far remained unspeakable: migrants, turned into a category, a threat, a scapegoat, can die at sea, in the desert or in centres in Libya, they may be crushed by lorries and trains in border areas, they may be enslaved, they may sleep in the street, on the banks of a river, be chased away, have their human individuality cancelled, turned into 'invaders' in general terms, and be blamed for any crime. All of this is becoming a matter of fact, without requiring our concern as a social body. People are not allowed to help - by providing food, information or a lift - those who try to cross a border to join their family or to seek possibilities for a decent existence, or they may face charges for assisting illegal immigration and for violating byelaws which not so long ago would have appeared intolerable to a large majority of Italians.
Criminalising solidarity threatens to promote, in public opinion and among political forces, an indifferent attitude towards migrants and refugees, or even overtly racist and nationalist positions. The same risk is inherent in the attempt to hint at corruption where there are examples of a welcoming reception and social inclusion which do not produce profits and do not fit within the logics of financial speculation, particularly at a time when reception is adopting an increasingly security-minded approach, as is evident from the new calls for tenders which will make impenetrable the places where people are hosted.
To counter this drift, the Observatory intends to act as an instrument to connect the reality of solidarity-minded NGOs and civil society, at a national and European level, by monitoring and reporting abuses against NGOs, activists and citizens acting in solidarity.
We propose to offer legal assistance, identifying self-help practices, to those who are on the receiving end of vexatious, insulting and discriminatory measures, and to structure a counter-narrative in the media to show how much extraordinary work has been done by NGOs and citizens acting in solidarity, often making up for the shortcomings, and even the abuses, enacted by institutions.
We want to act as a pressure group at the level of the European Parliament: asking for the restrictive norms in the current Dublin Regulation to be repealed; opposing the operative practices of European agencies like Frontex, which criminalise rescue and assistance activities by humanitarian workers; identifying the necessary instruments to put an end to the ambiguities contained in the Directive defining the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence (2002/90/EC) which offer pretexts to Member States to portray assisting the unlawful entry of migrants without financial gain as a criminal offence.
The Observatory has been operative since the day of its launch and has been organised into two working groups: the first is active in fields of communication; the second one will support and defend activists facing charges for acts of solidarity and promote legislative and normative measures at a national and European level.
The first group will include professionals in the communication sector - journalists, film directors, documentary makers, cartoonists, bloggers - who will communicate with journalists and the media at a national, local and international level with whom they are already, or will be, in contact.
The second group will comprise lawyers, jurists and activists who will actively defend NGOs and citizens acting in solidarity, as well as carrying out lobbying work before national and European institutions.
These are the tasks we have taken on:
- setting up a network of activists at an Italian and European level capable of exchanging information, supporting each other and making their voices heard in the media and at the judicial and institutional levels;
- identifying and reporting the attempts enacted at a social, political, media, judicial and legislative level to tarnish and oppose initiatives driven by solidarity;
- connecting professionals and activists who engage in communication work in order to provide journalists and the media accurate and timely information to oppose the criminalisation of solidarity and of humanitarian activists;
- putting together an archive of best practices which are enacted, in Italy and in Europe;
- putting together an archive of relevant jurisprudence, in Italy and in Europe;
- connecting the professionals and activists who work in the legal and judicial fields, in order to support people and organisations that have been criminalised for acts of solidarity towards refugees and migrants. We deem it especially important to structure the possibilities of a legal defence not just on an individual basis, which must enter the national and European contexts for the purpose of setting some limits to the margins of arbitrariness which feature increasingly in the work of judicial authorities, police forces and bureaucratic structures;
- promoting the Milan Charter, translating it into the main languages and asking Italian and European NGOs, associations and activists to sign it;
- making the relationship with NGOs from other European countries which are active in the same field stronger and more operative, and the same applies to the Observatory, NGOs, MPs from Member States and MEPs who have shared, in a way that is not sufficiently coordinated, their work to counter the authoritarian drift which opposes solidarity enacted by the EU's authorities, which are busy transforming Europe into a fortress towards the outside world and into an army barracks for its own citizens.
These are difficult tasks, for which our own strength will not be enough. We invite activists, professionals, citizens acting in solidarity and NGOs to join us, through our Facebook page Osservatorio Carta di Milano - La solidarietà non è reato and our email address: CartaMilanoSolidarieta [at] gmail.com (replace [at] with @], through which people can also sign up to the Charter.
The Observatory has decided to meet up again by the end of the month of November, after setting up an initial and temporary structure that may distribute the work on the basis of signatories' availability in terms of time and capabilities, to welcome new participants and identify any new channels which may be activated to involve the largest possible number of citizens, activists, organisations, institutions and bodies of different types, united by the conviction that it is necessary and urgent to erect a bulwark against the criminalisation of civil society.
Nasce lOsservatorio Carta di Milano: La solidarietà non è reato. Translation by Statewatch.
Milan like Barcelona. Together, without walls, against the racist criminalisation of migrants and the poor. For an international network of antiracist cities, by S. Palidda (Statewatch News Online, 27 May 2017)
Carta di Milano: la solidarietà non è reato, opening speech of the meeting on 30 September 2017 for the Observatory's launch Text of the Carta di Milano: la solidarietà non è reato (Milan Charter: solidarity is not a crime), 20 May 2017 France: Migration: collective manifesto marks start of new campaign against the "solidarity offence" as government maintains border controls until July (Statewatch News Online, 16 January 2017)
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