Context: Teresa Fernández

“Humanitarian work is not adequately protected in Europe”


Brussels (Belgium)
Teresa Fernández Paredes in the OMCT headquarters in Brussels. Photo: Lucía Muñoz Lucena and Cristian Pirovano.

According to Teresa Fernández Paredes, human rights consultant for the World Organisation Against Torture, networking is the best way to battle the shrinking in the European civil space. When describing the obstacles that activists and collectives face to do their work, she moves her arms in an attempt to visualise the liberation of a space that is getting tighter and tighter. This is the result of the fortress Europe, where securitisation and hate speech encourage the rise of fascism in the EU member states and the prosecution of those who defend human rights and solidarity.

Fernández Paredes (Oviedo, 1984) describes in detail the patterns of criminalisation of solidarity in Europe, analysed in a study by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OBS). The report Europe: Siege to Solidarity demonstrates the rise of attacks on human rights activists and organisations, within a context of death in the Mediterranean where more than 25,300 people have disappeared since 2014, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Which are the patterns of criminalisation in Europe?

Three repeated patterns of criminalisation were observed in a study carried out in several European countries, the process starts with the demonisation of the migrant population and therefore, of those who defend their rights. It continues with a set of bureaucratic obstacles that prevent them from doing their work. And often it ends in criminal prosecution, fines for the practice of their profession, etc. With the resulting psychological and emotional impact and the effect of hesitation over whether to continue or not defending human rights. More than anything, they are just citizens who respond with solidarity to the shocking situation that Europe has experienced for the last few years.

The report published by the Observatory, an organisation born in 1997 from the OMCT and the International Federation for Human Rights, refers to the EU migration and asylum measures. Why do you state that humanitarian work is not adequately protected in Europe?

At the moment, neither the European nor any national regulatory framework includes measures for the protection of humanitarian work. Their focus is not on the migrant population but on the prosecution of human trafficking. This is the fortress Europe, where doors are closed to others. These policies are detrimental and, as a result and day after day, lives are being lost in Europe and human rights are being violated.

Profit, be it material or economic, is a key aspect in the prosecution of migrant rights defenders that are accused of human trafficking. What does it mean exactly?

The OMCT has seen how the European regulatory framework fails by not compelling the states to differentiate between humanitarian or family work and human trafficking, which is obviously a very serious crime that needs to be battled with measures.

What happens with the EU Council Directive that defines the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence?

It just allows individual countries to act upon their decision by including a “humanitarian exception”. It should not be like this. The EU regulatory framework should compel the states to take humanitarian or family work into consideration and to not prosecute it. A lot of people are trying to help their relatives and they shouldn’t be prosecuted for it. How should it be? The directive should follow this approach to human rights which, we repeat, is key: people should always be at the centre, and their vulnerabilities and specific needs should be considered.

Fernández Paredes reviews the latest report of the Observatory. Photo: Lucía Muñoz Lucena and Cristian Pirovano

The Iuventa rescue ship has been blocked in the port of Trapani since 2017. Until December 2021, none of the ten members of the crew knew what charges they faced, as they didn’t have access to the 28.500 page-report that allegedly disclosed the evidence against them. Why is the OMCT so concerned about this case?

One of the patterns that we have identified shows that, even though criminal persecution is still attempted, other strategies have been implemented aimed at making it harder for the organisations to defend the rights of the migrants. A clear example are the obstacles that organisations such as the Iuventa and the Sea Watch have faced in Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean and even Atlantic countries, as in the case of the Western African route that arrives in the Canary Islands.
Discourses about the safety of the boats not complying with the requirements manage to block the ships, not allowing them to set sail. Vulnerable people unable to reach the port is no longer shown, so this strategy does not generate a response from the civil society. Despite hate speech, fake news and misinformation on migration, society is highly sensitive to these images. However, the reality is that these organisations cannot work for months.

Are rescue ships such as the Iuventa, Open Arms or Sea Watch the only ones facing this type of obstacles, or have you also identified other cases?

Unfortunately, they are not the only cases. France prevented people from giving food to migrants travelling to England. Greece unfairly increased taxes on migrant rights entities, and is constantly changing the entry requirements so local organisations cannot keep pace. The laws in place in Hungary… A battery of measures that serve as a pretext to complicate bureaucracy, such as the Covid-19, used as an excuse in terms of public health. The OMTC tries to monitor and follow up these cases in order to defend the right of these organisations to save lives, without forgetting that it is a duty of the states. States are obliged to guarantee the safety of a person who is in danger at the sea or at the mountain, and his or her right to live. However, they are not doing it and they are not allowing others to do it. It’s a very serious issue with a direct impact on people’s lives.

The case of the researcher and journalist Helena Maleno marked a milestone in the prosecution of defenders in Spain, in an example of European judicial cooperation with a third country. Resident in Morocco for over 15 years, she was deported on the 31st of January 2021. What has the OMCT found out about her prosecution?

To the OMCT, the case of Helena Maleno is a clear example of the prosecution of solidarity in Europe. Unfortunately, it is not the only one. European states put all their efforts into securitisation, building walls and preventing people from coming in, blocking any attempt to defend the right to life. The work of women like her in the defence of the rights of people who have been stigmatised, threatened and prosecuted in the absence of help from the Spanish or European authorities, is essential in the southern border of Europe. Her case is well-known. We all have heard about it. And yet, no authorities raised their voices to condemn the fact that she was prosecuted for defending the right to life. This cannot happen at any level, be it national or European.

Teresa Fernández Paredes explains the patterns of criminalisation. Photo: Lucía Muñoz Lucena and Cristian Pirovano
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