Concern as Spanish activist probed for saving drowning migrants

For years Helena Maleno made calls to the Spanish coastguards about migrant boats, potentially saving the lives of thousands of people attempting the treacherous crossing to Europe.

Concern as Spanish activist probed for saving drowning migrants
Photo: AFP

But although many view the Spanish activist's actions as humane, she is now under investigation in Morocco for human trafficking offences, in what has seen an outpouring of support from rights groups, politicians and even Hollywood star Javier Bardem.

The 47-year-old was questioned by a judge in the northern Moroccan city of Tangiers on Wednesday over accusations she is involved in facilitating illegal immigration.

“I find it incredible that a person who saved so many lives, who gives so much,” be probed, says Miguel Jesus Zea, head coastguard for the southern Spanish area of Almeria.

'Right to life'

Based in Tangiers for some 15 years, Maleno began helping migrants years ago by acting as a go-between for families whose loved ones attempted the journey to Spain, often calling Spanish authorities to request information about their fate.

The relationship developed and Maleno began to receive calls from migrants in boats or from their relatives telling her where they were.   

She relayed the information to naval authorities, sometimes crucial to the launch of a rescue operation.

Maleno, who works for the NGO Caminando Fronteras, has helped rescue “at least 10,000 people” off the coast of Almeria, according to Zea.    A petition against the case has been launched. It is signed by more than 200 leading Spanish figures, including Bardem, famous for the film No Country For Old Men, and author Almudena Grandes.   

“We show our total solidarity and support for Helena Maleno Garzon,” the petition reads, for “the defence of the right to life” and against “the criminalisation” of her work.

Amnesty International said it is following the case “with a lot of concern”, while the Catholic charity Caritas is attempting to mediate with Moroccan authorities on her behalf.

Migrants aware of Maleno's work also demonstrated their support. On Tuesday, Tangier cathedral was full to the brink with migrants praying for her, in video footage tweeted by Maleno.

'Criminal organisation'?

The Moroccan investigation stems from an initial report by Spanish police suspecting Maleno of working for a “criminal organisation” due to her telling rescue workers where migrants were, which aided their transfer to Spanish coasts.

Spanish prosecutors dropped the case in April 2017 as they found no evidence Maleno had committed any crime.   

Police passed the case on to Moroccan authorities, which decided to press ahead with an investigation, though they were unaware that prosecutors in Spain had already dropped the case, says Maleno.

Maleno's work for Caminando Fronteras has sometimes challenged the authorities.

In one case, after 15 migrants drowned in waters off the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in February 2014, Caminando Fronteras accused Spanish police of shooting rubber bullets into the sea while migrants tried to swim, arguing it could have contributed to their deaths.

Spanish authorities insisted they fired into the air to ward them off and did not target anyone directly.

'Stop all these deaths'

The investigation into Maleno comes as the number of migrants arriving in Spain hit a record high last year of nearly 22,900, according to EU border agency Frontex — more than double the previous record set in 2016.

At least 223 people died making the crossing to Spain, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).   

For Maleno, the figures are a shocking indictment of the failure of governments to deal with immigration.

“They're slaves and not citizens,” Maleno told AFP ahead of her case, while denouncing the “business” around migration, including organ trafficking, undeclared work and prostitution.

“Europe wants to show us that migration control is more important, but it isn't,” she says.

“We have the means to stop all these deaths.”

By Michaela Cancela-Kieffer / AFP



How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.