In this cross-border data story, we revealed how hundreds of European citizens have been ‘criminalised’ for helping migrants, particularly in places where the far-right holds national or local power. We worked with journalists across Europe to compile the longest known list of more than 250 people across 14 countries who have been arrested, charged or investigated under a range of laws over the last five years for supporting migrants. These cases suggest a sharp increase in the number of people targeted. At least 100 people were arrested, charged or investigated in 2018 alone (twice as many as in 2017).
The resulting story, published the weekend before the European Parliament elections, ahead of which far-right politicians in several countries were running on anti-migrant and ‘law and order’ agendas, had wide pickup globally in several languages, including in Arabic, Czech, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish. Journalists, researchers and NGOs from several countries asked us to share the underlying dataset to facilitate further follow-up work. These include a reporter at PRI who looked at similar trends in the US and heavily cited our research; the Migration Policy Group which was working on a related report for European policymakers; and the Church of Sweden. We also shared our findings in advance with the Independent newspaper in the UK with whom we co-timed publication.
Responding to our findings, Danish MEP Margrete Auken said: “The EU has a humanitarian responsibility, and a moral duty, to rescue and assist people in danger. But is currently far from living up to its own values”. Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said “instead of clamping down on those who help migrants live a more dignified life,” European leaders must “recommit with human rights, the rule of law and European values. This is both a legal and a moral duty”.
We constructed and analysed the largest known, cross-Europe dataset of individuals reportedly arrested, charged or investigated under a range of laws over the last five years for supporting migrants. To do this, we drew on and compiled previous research by think tanks and NGOs (where it existed, in some countries) and conducted structured searches of online news reports in half a dozen languages, compiling this information in a spreadsheet, with one record (row) per individual, and coding each record based on whether the individual was publicly identified as an activist, religious leader, etc.
First, we compiled cases listed in available research reports from the Institute for Race Relations in the UK (in 2017 & 2019) and records of cases in France (and some other countries) documented by the Gisti advocacy group. We then worked with journalists across Europe to conduct a first round of ‘wide net’ research online to develop lists of keywords / search terms commonly used in reports about these cases (ex. the expression “délit de solidarité” in France).
Journalists searching for cases in online news archives in different countries followed common instructions to fill out a shared Google spreadsheet consistently. We also individually contacted dozens of civil society groups across Europe including migrant rights and lawyers associations knowledgeable about these cases and incorporated any examples and information they shared with us into our spreadsheet, in the same format.
Prior to publication, each record in the spreadsheet was separately double-checked with its listed source(s). In some instances we excluded records from our list upon further review. We also produced pivot tables summarising results by country, for example, and a detailed methodology note explaining our steps, the spreadsheet’s contents and how to interpret it (including limitations of the data stemming from its reliance on news reports).
What was the hardest part of this project?
There is a lack of good cross-country data on issues like these that are extremely topical and of huge public interest. But there are reasons for this — it is difficult and time consuming to compile such information, across languages, and sometimes without common terms for these laws or related punishments.
Understanding the difficulties in gathering this information was key to helping us realise, for example, that the first thing we needed to do was develop a definition of what we mean by “solidarity crimes” and a common methodology (way of searching, and recording information), to use across countries including lists of country-specific search terms. As noted above, in France for example the expression “délit de solidarité” was often used in reports.
While there have been previous, narrower studies that focused on such cases under anti-trafficking laws specifically, we choose a wider definition: recording any case of an individual arrested, charged or investigated under a range of laws over the last five years for supporting migrants. Most of the cases we compiled involved people providing migrants with food, shelter or other direct assistance. A minority involved people arrested while supporting migrants indirectly, for example while demonstrating for migrants’ human rights.
As we did this research, we found hundreds of local media reports and blogs on cases that had never made it into the national media spotlight — and had thus gone “uncounted” in national debates. Coding the records in our spreadsheet based on descriptions of individuals and their professions (noting if they were described as activists, for example, or religious leaders, or farmers), was also essential to see the real story in the data: not just the numbers but the huge diversity of people affected by these laws.
What can others learn from this project?
Many people unfortunately think that data journalism is only ‘about numbers’. This project was about people. It applied data journalism techniques in particular in developing a methodology for consistent data collection, analysis and coding across countries. But the ‘tools’ we used are easily accessible (we used Microsoft Excel and Google spreadsheets for our dataset, for example, and online search engines and Factiva to research archive news reports. We produced pivot tables and used filters to focus on records that we had coded in different ways. But many of the people involved in the project had never worked with spreadsheets on a journalistic investigation before. Main learnings that others can take from this project are:
Most of the cases we found occurred in just seven countries: Italy, Greece, France, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Spain
People have been arrested, charged or investigated under various laws for giving migrants without legal papers with food and other assistance
Individuals affected are not only activists, and have also included about half a dozen priests, first-responders including a Spanish firefighter, several rural farmers and villagers, elderly women, journalists and writers, including a children’s author, and Catholic volunteers
If there is no data about something, that is topical and of obvious public interest, consider why? Asking this question is what drove us to develop definitions and lists of search terms in different languages as a first step
Coding information you collect is a powerful tool. Without this step, we might not have seen the story — the huge diversity of people impacted.
Share the datasets you construct, and a clearly written methodology note, with experts that have done similar research before, to have them reviewed independently before publishing your findings.