Escape Assistance – A Legitimate Form of Protest?

Barbed wire, fences, minefields, long-range drones with real-time telemetry transmission and wildlife cameras with GPS connectivity seal off the EU at its external borders. Police violence against people on their way to Europe is frequent. 

It has been five years since the EU struck a deal with Turkey to take back refugees. The agreement is a “stain on the EU’s human rights record,” says Imogen Sudbury vom IRC. The IRC was founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein to help refugees from the Nazi regime. Since 2015, there are said to have been many activists* who provided refugee assistance. In the meantime, not much is heard of the movement – not least because of the restrictions of the Corona pandemic.

The reports on the fire in Camp Moria, push-backs and Frontex motivate individuals to help refugees. We accompany them in doing so.

A harebrained idea to help people escape
“The project is literally a snap idea” says Marcel. “We wanted to charter a cruise ship, whose capacity utilization is not given anyway because of Corona. Due to the legal risks, we had to distance ourselves from the idea and bake smaller rolls. In return, there should be media support that is involved in our processes at an early stage. Requested media representatives were seriously interested, but their editorial offices did not see any use of the story for the broader market. In addition, the effort to participate in our plenaries while being considerate of security needs.” The security need seems appropriate.

The team and its network is shaping up to be diverse. With a slightly higher percentage of women*, a broad spectrum of professions is represented – even people with physical disabilities actively participate. Cell phones stay at home during the plenary sessions. Instead, there are analog plans for every conceivable situation. The innumerable rounds of reflection and discussion seem tiring – but in retrospect they make sense. When the topic of media support was to be fixed, a part of the group, which still seemed loose, separated itself. “The risk is too great”.

“Bribes for corrupt officials” is the comment of a journalist from the public broadcaster with sufficient experience in the Balkans. A fundraising campaign on stock includes, in addition to these bribes, bail payments and costs for lawyers. So that “nobody has to spend time behind bars”, shortly before the departure comes the cost promise for a middle five-digit amount. This money almost has to be used a few days later.

Crossing the border – in more ways than one
We have to abandon our plan to produce a video documentary from this story for security reasons. Documenting up to thirty-six hours, armed with notes and paper, also makes our tension rise noticeably. 

Due to the international nature of the project, it is riddled with English terms and anglicisms. While cell phones are banned from the plenary sessions, they play a decisive role in the “game”. With one hand, the coordinates of the hikers, their “pick-up” and “drop-off-points” are entered, “interim destinations” are added and the surroundings are scanned on offline satellite images. With the other hand, and another cell phone, communication with the teams is realized. When during the trip it turns out that sim cards of the hikers work in one country but not in the other, there is an exchange of sim cards between the escape vehicles “on the fly” – “always keep moving” was the advice of a hiker who has already gained extensive experience with escape assistance.

When an olive drab military jeep emerges from a dirt road, accelerates and turns on its siren it’s stop for a vehicle. The entire team is working in an emergency scenario. The “safe house” may no longer be approached directly, due to potential observation of the mobile team. “Hikers” in the vehicle become a tangible risk. The operation threatens to fail, at least for part of the crew.

The police officer looks at our car from the outside. She asks us about one or two other cars with German license plates. We shrug our shoulders. She looks at the blanket on the back seat under which two hikers are hiding.

(Reflections from first transporting car.pdf)

Border Crime – a question of perspective
The first entry on the Internet search “Border Crime” leads directly to the border protection agency Frontex. There it reads, mutatis mutandis: “There is clear evidence that many criminal networks engage in polycriminal activities by simply adding migrant smuggling or human trafficking to their “service portfolio.””

Crime Scene Balkan Route. Especially in 2015, for many protection seekers from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, the escape route via the Balkans was the longed-for salvation. With the complete closure of the Balkan route at the beginning of 2016, the fleeing people were forced into lawlessness. Since 2017, the organization Border Violence Monitoring Network has been collecting figures on push-backs in the Balkans. Push-back refers to pushing migrants back from the borders of their destination or transit country. Nearly 14,000 cases have been documented since then – which, according to  Pro Asyl, only covers a fraction of what actually happens.

Although we have been able to observe for some time – especially in the Aegean and on the Croatian-Bosnian border – that human rights are being violated not only in individual cases, but systematically, it is incredibly difficult or impossible to take legal action against this. Because people lack support, and because it is very difficult to prove a violation before a court in an individual case. 

And because the governments, not least the German government, have no interest whatsoever in investigating pushbacks and the machinations of Frontex, those who are responsible for deprivations of liberty and for the deaths at the external borders remain unchallenged – while those who seek protection, who want to rescue people from distress at sea or who want to work on investigating the brutal sealing off of borders are criminalized.”

This is what attorney Matthias Lehnert told He recently discussed the topic of push-backs on the Verfassungsblog [Constitution Blog]

Games of violence
What is meant by violations of the law at the external borders becomes clear when one looks at the report “Games of violence” by Ärzte ohne Grenzen [Doctors Without Borders], where it reads, among other things: The majority “had visible physical injuries, including cuts with razor blades and knives, severe beatings, food and water deprivation, sensory deprivation. The youngest patient treated was just 12 years old.”

What push-backs mean, our escape helpers also have to experience indirectly. During the action, the hikers are picked up in the border area of Croatia and their three, of a total of four, cell phones are destroyed. Sleeping bags, food and cash are confiscated by the police. Drenched, they are dropped off, in a cold night, 20 kilometers away from the border on the hill of a mountain of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We briefly consider accompanying the next attempt to cross the border with the camera – and refrain.

What is perceived as a serious setback by the supporters, which puts the tight schedule of the meticulously planned escape route behind schedule, could have been foreseen with a glance at reports from the Border Violence Network. Croatia is a front-runner in push-backs. Even the Austrian police are said to be involved in illegal push-backs, according to DER STANDARD.

Human Rights Watch derives concrete, political demands from Croatia’s practice as early as 2019: “If the EU admits Croatia to the Schengen area while continuing to brutally turn back asylum seekers, it gives the green light for further abuse,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans expert at Human Rights Watch.

Refugee Routes


The four hikers all come from Iran. Their way leads them via Turkey or Greece, on the Balkan route, to Bosnia Herzegovina. Somewhere along the way, they meet up with the supporters and pursue a common goal. Germany. Lihane has not seen her partner, who lives in Germany, for several years. Melanie and Hussain have family in Germany. Azaam has kept his head above water for years as an escape helper on the route and now wants to come to rest. The supporters regularly receive videos from the hikers until the final meeting. 

Arrival in Leipzig
Shortly after their arrival in Leipzig, we interviewed the hikers. They impressively describe their thoughts on the role of women on the escape routes, reasons for escape, police violence and human traffickers as well as organized escape assistance. 

“People smuggling – a legitimate form of protest”
In a recent article “Human Smuggling and the Paradox of Criminalization of Solidarity” of the Slovenian academic magazine “Two Homelands”, Prof. Jelka Zorn discusses human smuggling within the European border regime. She concludes that solidarity practices are protests against it, while smuggling is the effect of violent borders. We got to the bottom of the strictly scientific article with an interview.

We cannot give an answer to the question of the legitimacy of refugee assistance with this contribution. In the government statement on the EU-Turkey deal concluded in 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks of improving border protection and jointly fighting criminal gangs of smugglers. Volker Kauder (CDU/CSU) subsequently defends the deal with Turkey in this round, referring to the phrase that “politics begins with looking at reality.” The fact that people are not deterred from crossing the EU’s external borders either by the wording or by high penalties gives us food for thought. While Frontex is engaged in military build-up, the supporters are confidently planning their next actions – “how-to-fleeing” workshops based on a guide they recently published. 

I think it is incredibly enriching, also for other activists, to learn how such an action can be planned and carried out….”

(Reflections_from_second_transporting car.pdf)

*The names of the protagonists were changed. Audios dubbed.