In December 2018, laws designed to deal with terrorism – not peaceful protest – were used to convict the Stansted 15. In March 2017, the group of activists had locked themselves around an aircraft to prevent a charter flight due to deport 60 people from taking off.

The case is well-documented, with the group found guilty last month of ‘endangering safety at aerodromes’ under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Act, introduced as a direct response to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. At their sentencing in early February, the fifteen – one of whom is pregnant – face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Climate justice activists using similar tactics to protest aeroplane emissions in the past have been charged with aggravated trespass, not terrorism, and given non-custodial sentences. So why has the British state decided to use the ‘sledgehammer’ of anti-terror legislation to crack down on peaceful protest? What was it about the action of the Stansted 15 that warranted such severe and unprecedented treatment by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)?

While migration is by no means a new phenomenon, it’s recent framing as a ‘crisis’ has legitimized extraordinary measures to deter migrants and, increasingly, those who advocate for their rights. Solidarity with migrants, however big or small, has become a ‘perilous’ act. To understand the disproportionate response to the Stansted 15, it is necessary to situate the case within a wave of criminalization and delegitimization of migrant solidarity across Europe at a time of great political and economic unease.

Reports published by the Transnational Institute and the Institute of Race Relations document a disturbing trend of systemic intimidation and repression of ‘human rights defenders’ across Europe. Emboldened by the EU’s increasingly restrictive approach to immigration policy since late 2014, laws criminalizing the ‘facilitation’ of illegal entry and residence have been used to punish and deter migrant solidarity, whilst simultaneously diverting attention away from the violence of border and immigration regimes. As defense of borders is increasingly prioritized over migrant and refugee lives, NGOs and solidarity groups filling in the gaps in state provision throughout Europe have found themselves stigmatized and harassed, legally undermined and politically isolated.

The mortality rate of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea has steadily risen since 2015. This is a consequence not only of the EU’s decision to withdraw search and rescue capacity, but also of its active sabotage of the efforts of NGOs to save lives. EU pressure forced the termination of Mare Nostrum  Italy’s most successful search and rescue mission – and its replacement with Operation Triton, coordinated by EU border agency Frontex. While Mare Nostrum’s mandate was to save lives, rescuing 156,362 people in one year, Triton’s mandate is to militarize border control. Meanwhile, NGO search and rescue boats have had their activities blocked, either by smuggling and trafficking charges brought against their staff, by port authorities refusing entry or impounding ships, or by fascist attacks, such as the ‘Defend Europe’ boat launched to this end in 2017. This onslaught finally forced Médecins Sans Frontières to end operations in the Mediterranean last year.

On land, survivors of the sea crossing face entrapment by physical borders and Europe’s nightmarish bureaucracy. Individuals and solidarity groups who provide food, shelter and transport to migrants and refugees are prosecuted, continuously harassed or even removed from their towns. In March 2016, the former Danish children’s ombudsman and children’s author, Lisbeth Zornig Anderson, and her husband were convicted of people smuggling after offering a family of Syrian refugees a lift and a cup of coffee. In the Italian border town of Ventimiglia, No Border activists who organized an informal camp providing shelter and basic necessities for migrants were served with orders expelling them from the town in May and July 2016, while by-laws prohibiting food distribution issued in August 2015 saw three French and British volunteers with Roya Citoyenne arrested for distributing food to irregular migrants.

This Europe-wide hostile environment is key to understanding the UK government’s prosecution of the Stansted 15. In the UK, the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ has been the openly stated lynchpin of immigration policy, first outlined by Theresa May as Home Secretary in 2012. This environment is dependent on the participation of ‘good’ citizens, who – sometimes without even knowing – are required to act as border guards. Landlords, employers, education and healthcare professionals among others are required to check the immigration status of people accessing jobs, housing, healthcare or other support. A refusal to participate in the hostile environment, or – worse – taking action to actively challenge it, threatens the foundations of this policy. As a result, those who resist the enforcement of violent borders are placed firmly in the category of ‘bad’ citizens.

The Stansted 15’s actions expressly challenged and forced the public to bear witness to the inherent violence of the UK borders and immigration system against the most vulnerable, making visible what Luke de Noronha refers to as ‘the architecture of racialized border violence’. Charter flights are inherently violent. Bulk-booked ahead of time on privately contracted planes they rely on sudden immigration raids to fill seats, leaving people with little time to appeal or prepare. With no other passengers on board there are no witnesses to the often violent techniques used to restrain those resisting removal. However, as the case of Jimmy Mubenga reminds us, deportation by other means can be no less brutal. He died on a commercial flight, while restrained by G4S guards and crying out to other passengers ‘I can’t breathe’.

By locking themselves around an aircraft and lying on the runway for over ten hours, the Stansted 15 prevented those on the flight from being forcibly deported to the Ghana and Nigeria, where many faced serious human rights abuses. Eleven of the original passengers remain in the country with ongoing asylum claims, three have received leave to remain, and four have been referred to the National Referral Mechanism for support as potential victims of trafficking. The importance of this action for the people on board cannot be overstated. Yet Judge Christopher Morgan ruled inadmissible the Stansted 15’s defense that they acted lawfully to prevent a greater harm and instead instructed the jury to consider only whether they had posed a ‘real and material’ risk to the airport. The everyday and certain violence of borders is thus concealed by a focus on potential harm to an airport, in which the prosecution’s case rested on the fine points of ‘health and safety’ and high-visibility vests.

The Stansted 15’s guilty verdict places severe penalties on future actions to expose and challenge increasingly restrictive border controls, which are underwritten by a draconian migrant detention and deportation regime. Where solidarity is framed as a crime and anti-terror legislation mobilized to suppress dissent, not only are our freedom and rights at risk, but intolerance and fear become institutionalized and instilled into the national consciousness. Those who suffer the most from this hostile environment are migrants, whose precarious legal status makes it immensely difficult to defend their rights or access justice: to simply complain about an employer’s abuse or report a violent partner risks detention and deportation. The disproportionate response to the Stansted 15’s peaceful protest reveals how much the UK government relies on the participation of its citizens to exclude non-citizens and how much it fears those forging bridges of solidarity.

The Stansted 15 have recently launched their appeal. You can contribute to their trial costs here, and donate to support the wider End Deportations campaign here.

May Robson is an MSc International Politics graduate at SOAS, specializing in migration, race and gender. She works in migrant rights and tweets @mayrbsn. This article was originally published by the History Workshop Online.