Two years after the biggest spike in arrivals of migrants and refugees in Europe since World War II, the influx of people running from the Middle East and Africa seems to be slowing down.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), last year only 177,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean to escape poverty and violent conflicts, compared to 363,000 in 2016. We say “only”, but migrating into Europe by sea is still one of the most dangerous ventures a human being can embark upon, and even if the numbers have dropped, the death toll is still high.
The journey is dangerous from A to Z, illegal migrants jump out of the frying pan into the fire. Many of them escape smugglers at the early stages, because of mistreatment or inability to pay more. Those who are caught before being able to cross the sea are first sent to detention camps and then deported to the very countries they were fleeing from.
As U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in November, the detention system is broken beyond repair. In some detention facilities, he saw “thousands of emaciated and traumatised men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, and stripped of their human dignity”.
The “lucky” ones that are able to reach the boats to Europe run a huge risk of drowning on the way. Even if they reach the shores of Italy, Spain or Greece, they are still likely to be detained and deported to their countries of origin.
On January 7th, 48 more lives were lost as 117 Malians were trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of better life. 69 survivors were detained in Libya and will be sent back to Mali “as quickly as possible”.
Breakfast in a refugee camp
It doesn’t matter if you are a victim of human trafficking, you still may be subject to the now infamous Dublin transfer procedure. It doesn’t matter what horrors you left behind, you still may be sent back. It doesn’t matter if your ship has sunk and you are trying to swim to the shore, police still may shoot you down with rubber bullets.
Sometimes, the only people standing between the refugees and death are human rights lawyers and activists. However, in Europe, they are often prosecuted under anti-smuggling or immigration laws or accused of working for criminal organisations.
The most recent example of such prosecution is the case of Helena Maleno, a human rights activist who has been working for the NGO Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders) for many years. She has been living in Tangiers for 15 years and is currently under investigation in Morocco for human trafficking offences.
At first, Helena was just a go-between for the Spanish authorities and the families of those who were trying to reach Spanish shores. Over time, she began receiving calls from migrants sailing towards Spain, telling her about their whereabouts. That way, every time a rescue operation was launched, she was able to provide crucial information to the naval authorities.
Refugees trying to reach the seashore
Miguel Jesus Zea, head coastguard for the southern Spanish area of Almeria, said Helena saved “at least 10 000 people”. Unfortunately, not everyone is as appreciative of her efforts as Mr Zea.
Initially, it was the Spanish police that reported Maleno for working for a “criminal organisation”. The case was dropped in April 2017, as no evidence supporting the claim was found. However, Moroccan authorities decided to continue the investigation. On Wednesday, she was questioned by a judge over accusations that she is involved in facilitating illegal immigration.
Women’s Link Worldwide, an NGO Ms Maleno also works for, provided her with an attorney. Ms Maleno’s lawyer Gema Fernandez hopes that “that this investigation will end soon and that she will be able to continue with her human rights and humanitarian work that is so important”.
A petition condemning the investigation was launched. More than 200 prominent Spanish figures have signed it, including the Hollywood star Javier Bardem and writer Almudena Grandes. “We show our total solidarity and support for Helena Maleno Garzon, for the defence of the right to life,” the petition reads.
Several international humanitarian NGOs such as Doctors of the World, Amnesty International and Caritas also show their support to Helena, even trying to negotiate with Moroccan authorities on her behalf.
Helena keeps her supporters up to date via Twitter. “I’ve testified and the judge has recognised my work as ‘humanitarian labour’ and noted that the accusation is blatantly from the [Central Unit of the Network for Illegal Immigration and False Documents] of the Spanish national police,” – she wrote on Wednesday afternoon.
Her next court hearing is on January 31st. If any evidence that she was acting illegally is found, she could be formally charged and stand trial.
Despite the recent trials and tribulations, Helena is determined to continue her work. “Europe wants to show us that migration control is more important, but it isn’t. We have the means to stop all these deaths,” – she says.