Saving the lives of refugees should not be a crime

In Europe and North America, the law is often at odds with basic humanity
Photo: Jonathan McIntosh
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In Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, the main origin of drama is the conflict between human (political) law and moral law (the law of the gods).

Antigone, the eldest daughter of King Oedipus, wants to give her dead brother, Polynices, a proper burial because she believes it to be her familial and religious responsibility. Her uncle, King Creon, forbids it, because he considers Polynices to be a traitor to the state.

At the heart of the tragedy is the conflict between state law and moral justice. To Antigone, human laws are imperfect and transient. Her ultimate responsibility lies in defending her moral code. She dies a martyr, remaining true to her convictions.

I first read this ancient Greek tragedy as a young teenager, and Antigone’s ethics and her defence of moral law made a strong impression on me. The clear distinction between political legislation, often influenced and motivated by temporary mores, and one’s own moral code, which often reflects overriding human values, remained with me.

Human history has proven Sophocles wise in differentiating between the two types of law and championing the latter. Slavery was once legal, but it was not moral. The Doctrine of Discovery and the concept of terra nullius, which enabled and allowed colonialism, were legal, but they were not moral. Segregation was legal, but it was not moral. Anti-potlatch laws were legal, but they were not moral. The death sentence is still legal in many U.S. states and countries, but it is not moral.

Scott Warren is no criminal

I recently thought of Antigone and her fight for moral law while reading the legal case of 36-year-old Arizona geography professor Scott Warren, who faced up to 20 years in prison. His horrid crime? Leaving food and water out for migrants dying in the desert.

Warren is a volunteer for No More Deaths, a non-profit group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the Arizona desert. He did what any moral and decent person would have done and helped people in need. The law, however, is incongruous with common decency, misconstruing humanitarian aid and kindness a crime.

Fortunately, his case resulted in a mistrial after jurors were unable to reach a verdict, but I am appalled that someone could be prosecuted and potentially face decades in prison for attempting to help fellow human beings, whose only crime was that they didn’t win the lottery of having been born north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite the U.S. president’s reactionary and fear-driven anti-immigrant rhetoric, Warren and many others refuse to see migrants and refugees as anything other than human beings in dire need, who are attempting to better their lives and escape humanitarian crises.

“In the time since I was arrested in January 2018, no fewer than 88 bodies were recovered from the Arizona desert,” read Warren from a brief statement.

People are dying from entirely preventable causes like dehydration and sun or cold exposure. Those who say that migrants put themselves in these dangers fail to grasp the overarching reasons for such a decision, or to acknowledge that their refusal to help them won’t stop migrants from crossing the border.

Desperate people will continue to do desperate things, and sometimes the only thing standing between them and death are decent people who choose not to follow a law that would mean letting them die.

Migrant children as young as two and three years old are held in concentration camps, often separated from their parents. Border Patrol agents have been filmed destroying jugs of water placed in the desert for migrants. Six migrant children in U.S. custody have already died, and there are recent reports that U.S. border officials are confiscating migrant kids’ medicine. How is all this not considered criminal? It’s certainly not moral.

Pia Klemp is no criminal

Over in Europe, a similar case to Warren’s is being tried. Pia Klemp, a 35-year-old activist, biologist, and boat captain from Germany is getting ready to stand trial in Italy for helping rescue more than 1,000 North African migrants attempting to reach Europe from drowning. She is accused of “aiding illegal immigration” and faces more than 20 years in prison.

In interviews, Klemp has said that saving drowning people is every captain’s duty. I would venture that saving drowning people is every human being’s duty. If a helpless person was drowning in front of my very eyes and I did nothing, I would (justifiably) be deemed heartless and cruel, and quite possibly be subject to Good Samaritan laws, which dictate that a person offer reasonable assistance to those in peril.

Yet, if someone attempts to rescue a thousand desperate drowning people, in the eyes of the law, they are deemed to be involved in criminal activity. Why? Because the goal is to criminalize sea rescues and deter migrants from attempting the trip.

Though international law stipulates that the highest priority is to respond to people in need, countries are not following those rules. Merchant boats are increasingly reluctant to respond to the distress calls of sinking migrant ships because they know they won’t be allowed to enter European ports and will be stuck caring for the migrants they save. Countries are deliberately making it inconvenient to save lives. Some are making it criminal. “After all, what’s a few more dead people if we can prevent thousands more from trying to do the same thing” is clearly some governments’ thinking.

Klemp has vowed that she will fight the verdict all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, and I sincerely hope that she does. People like her and Warren are showing us the way. They are putting our governments on trial for breaking the most basic of human codes: to be there for one another.

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