Bundestag must prevent the criminalisation of humanitarian aid today

Demonstrant*innen vor dem Bundestag mit blauen Schildern.
Wasil Schauseil / SOS Humanity

Berlin, 18 January 2024. Today, Thursday, the German parliament Bundestag will vote on the “Repatriation Improvement Act”, which tightens deportation measures and massively restricts the rights of people seeking protection. An amendment to Section 96 of the Residence Act would make humanitarian aid punishable by up to 10 years in prison. New legal opinions warn about the criminal prosecution of sea rescue organisations that save minors.

The draft law presented by the Federal Ministry of the Interior would also make altruistic assistance to refugees a punishable offence. Following protests from civil society, the proposal was amended to include the phrase ‘by land’ in order to prevent the criminalisation of civilian search and rescue. However, two new legal opinions now warn that although the proposed amendment would allow the rescue of adults without penalty, the rescue of unaccompanied minors in distress at sea could now become a criminal offence.  Other human rights defenders, humanitarian organisations and refugees themselves are also affected, as the current draft criminalises solidarity with refugees on land. For example, anyone providing basic necessities such as food, shelter and medical care to people seeking protection at the external borders could face up to 10 years in prison in Germany.

Human rights organisations are therefore calling on parliament to reject the amendment in a joint action on the day of the vote.

Speaking at the protest in front of the Bundestag on Thursday morning, Marie Michel, policy expert at SOS Humanity, said: “We are appalled that refugees and those who provide humanitarian aid to them are threatened with prison sentences in Germany. This criminalisation of altruistic aid is scandalous and contrary to our fundamental democratic values. We therefore urge all members of the Bundestag to vote against this amendment to Section 96 of the Residence Act today.”

Sarah Schneider of Medical Volunteers International e.V., one of the organisations involved in the protest action that could be directly affected by the prosecution: “The EU continues to close itself off and massively restrict access to human rights. The criminalisation of NGOs working for human rights is appalling! Health is a human right and must be made unconditionally available to all people, regardless of where they live or their status. We stand with all other affected organisations against this tightening of the law and demand the protection of humanitarian NGOs and full solidarity with all people on the move!

The organisations are not alone in their demand: over 135,000 people have signed a WeAct petition addressed to the Federal Minister of the Interior, Nancy Faeser (SPD), and all democratic members of the Bundestag. The signatures were handed over to a representative of the Interior Committee outside the Bundestag last Monday.

Background information:

The independent lawyer R.A. David Werdermann and the lawyer and legal adviser Vera Magali Keller have also analysed the new draft law in a short report. (only German)

Lawyers Aziz Epik and Valentin Schatz have also published an expert opinion on the updated draft of the law. (only German)

Up to now, only those who bring ‘foreigners’ into the Schengen area for their own benefit, such as for financial gain, have been liable to prosecution in Germany. However, the Federal Ministry of the Interior has now proposed a change to the law, which has been approved by the cabinet, so that altruistic, humanitarian aid for refugees will also be punishable. This week, the Bundestag will vote on the “Repatriation Improvement Act”, which, in addition to tightening asylum law, also includes an extension of the criminalisation of assistance to refugees in Article 96 of the Residence Act. According to this, helpers who “repeatedly or for the benefit of several foreigners” bring them into the Schengen area will be prosecuted.

Petition by SOS Humanity together with Sea-Watch, United4Rescue and other NGOs with over 136,000 signatures.

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