On 18 January 2024, the Bundestag is set to vote on the controversial “Repatriation Improvement Act”. This would tighten deportation measures, restrict the rights of people seeking protection and criminalise humanitarian aid workers. Search and rescue is also not exempt from this as announced. SOS Humanity and other organisations are protesting against this in front of the Bundestag. Marie from the advocacy and mobilisation team at SOS Humanity gives a speech on site:
We are here today as civil society, as humanitarian organisations and as a movement in solidarity with refugees – because we are appalled and angry. Appaled and angry about the Repatriation Improvement Act, which the Bundestag [the German parliament] is to decide on today.
We are appalled and angry that this law will further tighten already inhumane deportation practices and thus promote the disenfranchisement of people seeking protection in our society.
Appaled and angry that support for people fleeing their homes is to be criminalised. That people working in civil search- and rescue, human rights defenders and humanitarian aid workers are to be imprisoned for up to ten years as part of the Repatriation Improvement Act.
We are not just everyone standing here today, but 136,000 people who have spoken out against the Repatriation Improvement Act with the petition “No imprisonment for civil sea rescue”. 136,000 people who are in favour of protecting humanitarian aid and civil sea rescue.
In the coalition agreement, the governing parties recognise their humanitarian responsibility and their human rights obligations to protect refugees. They recognise the duty to rescue people at sea and, in their words, wanted to “end the suffering at the external borders” and “advocate a state-coordinated and European-supported sea rescue programme”.
Three years later, the results are alarming.
The main issue here is the amendment to Section 96 of the Residence Act, which is to be adopted as part of the Repatriation Improvement Act. This paragraph regulates the criminalisation of the so-called “smuggling” of foreigners into Germany and the Schengen area. Previously, it was only punishable in the Schengen area if people received a financial benefit from helping others to enter the country – i.e. if they received money in return. Now, disinterested assistance with entry is also to be penalised. In concrete terms, this means that I and my colleagues could go to prison for up to 10 years.
This amendment is packaged in such a complicated way that it is hard to understand. In addition, civil society has been excluded from the political process and deceived:
After we actively raised our voices as civil society, there were first assurances that civil sea rescue was not to be criminalised with the Repatriation Improvement Act. Then, according to the government factions, sea rescue was excluded from the paragraph – while humanitarian aid by land was to remain a criminal offence.
What emerged yesterday is that, contrary to the claims of the government factions, the draft law was not adapted so that civil sea rescue was exempted from criminal liability in Germany. This means that civil sea rescue is to be criminalised: the rescue of unaccompanied minors in distress at sea is now to be a criminal offence.
The fact is that our rescue ships rescue minors travelling alone from boats in distress at sea on every mission. As employees and crew members of a civilian sea rescue organisation, we therefore have one foot in prison if paragraph 96 is voted yes today. And not just us! Other forms of support for people on the move are also being criminalised.
It is completely absurd: by what right, by what argument can humanitarian aid be differentiated by group and location? By what right can adults at sea be excluded from the amendment and humanitarian aid for minors at sea and humanitarian aid on land be criminalised?
We say: Humanitarian aid and solidarity with people seeking protection must never and nowhere – not on land and not at sea – be criminalised!
We are standing here together today because we are appalled and angry. Because we are appalled and angry that refugees and those who offer them humanitarian support are threatened with prison sentences in Germany. This criminalisation of altruistic aid is a scandal and contradicts our fundamental democratic values.
But we are also here today because the members of parliament now have the opportunity to avert this political catastrophe and stand up for human rights.
We urge you as members of the Bundestag to vote “no” today against the Repatriation Improvement Act!
Because flight and solidarity with people on the run must not be a criminal offence!