Coming to the aid of drowning migrants? Get ready to be treated like a criminal | Lorena Gazzotti

Authorities on both sides of the Mediterranean want to silence the activists and NGOs who are inconvenient witnesses to the brutality of border policing

Activists and NGOs defending migrants’ rights will remember 2017 as the year in which they were targeted by legal systems in Europe and north Africa. Take the case of Helena Maleno Garzón, a Spanish journalist and human rights advocate. You may not have heard of her. But authorities on both sides of the strait of Gibraltar know her well.

Maleno, who has been living in Tangier since 2001, will on 27 December face a hearing as part of an investigation by Moroccan authorities into her alleged collusion with smuggling and human-trafficking networks. Central to the case are the calls that Maleno has been making to the Spanish and the Moroccan coastguards since 2007 about boats in distress in the strait and the Alboran Sea. Because of their proximity to migrant communities in northern Morocco, Maleno and other activists regularly receive distress calls, and they relay the signals to naval authorities, a vital step in ensuring migrants’ rescue.

You may think what she does is simply humane, but the Moroccan investigation mirrors proceedings on the Spanish side of the strait, where police launched an investigation based on similar allegations a few years ago. It was dropped earlier this year due to lack of evidence of any criminal activity.

One can see why governments are trying to discourage Maleno. Her work has made her an inconvenient witness to the deadly consequences of border surveillance policies. Unlawful deportations from the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, migrants injured by border guards during attempts to jump the fences dividing Spanish and Moroccan territory, countless migrants perishing in the strait: these are just some facts documented by Maleno in a recent report for the collective Caminando Fronteras. These are events that demand authorities live up to their responsibilities – and address human rights violations and the humiliating living conditions endured each day by migrants at the border.

This story is part of a disturbing pattern in which European states are attempting to criminalise activists operating in different parts of the Mediterranean. Consider the allegations of facilitating irregular migration directed by Italian authorities at NGOs conducting search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, or the French farmer Cédric Herrou, given a suspended jail sentence for assisting migrants arriving from Italy. The investigation in Italy into the NGO Jugend Rettet, an organisation of young Europeans who perform search and rescue missions, is continuing.

Cédric Herrou is a French farmer who supports African refugees – video

What is happening here seems clear: in order to sustain current border policies, allegations of facilitating migration and collusion with smuggling networks have become the new weapon on both shores of the Mediterranean to discredit those who challenge restrictive migration policies.

The presence of activists and solidarity networks at crossing points troubles those in charge of European migration policies for two reasons. First, there is the enduring myth of the “pull factor”, which says that providing assistance to distressed migrants increases their willingness to cross. Decreasing the pull factors, they say, will reduce the number of migrants making for the Mediterranean’s European coast – even though research has largely disproved this argument.

Second, NGOs and activists are inconvenient witnesses to the brutal and inhumane consequences of migration policies. The work of activists like Maleno, patiently collecting testimony that contradicts official explanations, has led to judicial procedures being reopened. This includes the investigation into the deaths in 2014 of 15 migrants off Tarajal beach, in Ceuta, allegedly as a result of the actions of Spanish civil guards.

The criminalisation of activists and solidarity networks reduces and discourage the ability of independent actors to monitor and criticise the conduct of state authorities, which is a principle of the democratic process. To appease the obsession for border control, these unfair attacks undermine that democratic scrutiny.

But the damage goes further. Discouraging activists bolsters the view that some lives are worth less than others. And that the fact that migrants might perish during the crossing should be simply accepted as part of the game. Commenting on her own case, Maleno raised the concern that should worry everybody. “The most painful thing,” she said. “Is the normalisation of the loss of the right to life.”

• Lorena Gazzotti is an academic specialising in migration and refugee studies

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Lorena Gazzotti

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