Showing compassion to refugees shouldn't be a crime

Scott Warren, (R), a volunteer for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths, speaks with local residents during a community meeting to discuss federal charges against him for aiding undocumented immigrants on May 10, 2019 in Ajo, Arizona.

Kumi Naidoo is the secretary general of Amnesty International. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)He gave them food, he gave them water and he gave them a place to stay. But according to the Arizona state prosecutors, the humanitarian actions of Dr. Scott Warren, a volunteer who had provided basic aid to two migrants from Honduras, were criminal. So much so that they brought a controversial case against him -- one which could have resulted in up to 20 years in prison.

While the high-stakes case ended in a mistrial this month, the government has not dropped the charges. The possibility of a retrial still looms large.
This emerging tactic of governments targeting individuals who have shown compassion to refugees and migrants not only goes against basic human values of kindness and decency, it represents a worrying new low in the crackdown on the rights of people on the move.
Kumi Naidoo
Warren's case, in particular, has garnered media attention across the world and is emblematic of the open hostility shown toward migrants and refugees by President Donald Trump's government. Yet, in contrast, there are many Americans who have been appalled by the humanitarian tragedy taking place on their doorstep. As Warren himself noted, "people are dying right on the edge of our town. That's what drives me to act."
    The deaths of people making the life-threatening crossing through the arid Sonoran Desert in Arizona are not a tragic accident. Rather, this is the culmination of years of federal government policy designed to deter people from trying to cross into the United States by closing off existing migration routes and forcing people to take the most dangerous and remote routes possible. US border authorities have recorded 7,242 border deaths over the last 20 years, and Arizona is one of the deadliest areas -- representing nearly four in 10 of those deaths.
    This vindictiveness toward migrants and refugees has now led enforcement officials to try and crush people's basic instinct to want to help those who are suffering. Other volunteers from No More Deaths, the group to which Warren belongs, have been targeted with federal misdemeanour charges like "abandonment of property" for leaving water in the desert. Amnesty International has documented other examples of volunteers and aid providers working with those in need at the border area being detained, interrogated, having their travel restricted, electronics seized and searched -- and more.
    What has set Warren's case apart is how aggressively prosecutors have come after him -- seeking multiple charges that could have led to a 20-year prison term. But it would be a mistake to think of this as an outlier case. It is, in fact, becoming a shameful norm for governments with anti-refugee policies to openly target anyone who has shown basic decency to fellow human beings in need.
    As we mark World Refugee Day on June 20, it is a sad indictment of the times that our work on refugees and migrants at Amnesty International does not just cover advocating for the rights of people on the move -- it now extends to campaigning for activists who are being targeted for helping refugees or migrants. Across Greece, France, Italy, Switzerland, Croatia, UK, Amnesty has documented cases of how European governments too have tried to turn compassion into a crime.
    Authorities have stooped so low as to target people like Martine Landry, a 73-year-old retiree and volunteer with Amnesty International. Last year, she was prosecuted for helping two 15-year-old asylum seekers in France. She took the two boys to a police station so they could register their asylum claims and be cared for as minors. She was falsely charged with aiding the entry of the two foreign minors, which came with a maximum five-year prison term and a 30,000 euro fine.
    Martine has been discharged, but the general prosecutor appealed the decision. The case against her is still pending.
    And though the French Constitutional Court ruled that the principle of "fraternité" embedded in the Constitution protects the freedom to help others, regardless of their immigration status, this decision has not stopped authorities in France from continuing to target activists helping migrants and refugees.
    Take Tom Ciotkowski, a British human rights defender, who is currently on trial after he tried to document the behavior of French riot police in Calais. His case is emblematic of the kind of intimidation and harassment activists have faced when attempting to monitor the treatment of migrants and refugees and police behavior during forced evictions from makeshift camps.
    Ironically, a verdict is expected in Ciotkowski's case on June 20 -- World Refugee Day. He could face up to five years in prison if convicted on trumped-up charges of contempt and assault.
    But it is not only France that has aggressively gone after those who've dared to show compassion. In Britain, 15 activists were convicted last year on terrorism-related charges for trying to stop what they claimed were unlawful deportations at Stansted airport.
    All of these cases point to the worrying trend of the criminalization of solidarity. Governments who pursue an aggressively anti-refugee agenda have not only sought to make life miserable for people exercising their fundamental right to seek asylum, they are now punishing anyone who dares to help them. The fact that UK authorities charged the "Stansted 15" with terrorism-related offenses is a case in point -- it is a deeply disturbing precedent that has dangerous consequences for us all.
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    And to be clear: these aggressive government tactics have not been successful by any measure. Unless, of course, you define success by exporting the death and suffering of individuals beyond public view. People continue to come to Europe and the United States to seek sanctuary. Instead of opening safe and regular routes for them to travel, governments are in a macabre race to the bottom to make their lives hell.
      The greatest lifeline we have in this desperate situation is the fact that people are refusing to acquiesce to their governments' efforts to criminalize compassion. Leaders' attempts to make the public complicit in their vilification of migrants and refugees is not working. As long as governments across Europe and the United States fail in their duty to protect the lives of migrants and refugees, there will always be people willing to help their fellow human beings in their hour of need -- and at whatever the cost.
      And that is a real source of hope this World Refugee Day.