“There is no one there, in the Mediterranean”


Dublin (Ireland)

Mary Lawlor, un Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, during the interview in Dublin. Lucía Muñoz Lucena

 There is no one there.remembers Mary Lawlor when describing the consequences of criminalising defenders who are just trying to save the lives of those who take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean in search for a better life. 

Since she was appointed UE Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Lawlor has been especially concerned about the prosecution of the eleven crew members of the Sea Watch and the Iuventa rescue ships and of Helena Maleno. The Iuventa ship has remained stranded in the port of Trapani since 2017 and its crew still faces prison sentences due to the use of anti-mafia law.
The Spanish researcher Helena Maleno, investigated for human trafficking, was deported from her country of residence, Morocco, in December 2021, even when neither the Spanish nor the Moroccan Courts could prove that she was doing other than tracking and reporting the dinghies that were left adrift while trying to reach the European coast.

What is the situation of defenders in the European Union?

The situation is not uniform but it is really, really worrying.I’ve been following retaliation against human rights defenders in various countries such as Poland, Italy, Greece, or France. It really upsets me because the EU guidelines on human rights defenders spell out the steps that should be taken to allow defenders to do their peaceful work in promoting and protecting universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, including migrants’ rights to asylum and life.

It’s a fundamental issue in Europe: the right to ask for asylum, the rights of the migrant workers. The attacks on the human rights defenders who are trying to help migrants are simply shameful.

Since 2015, there has been an increase in solidarity with migrants. We have witnessed terrible situations: people freezing to death in Poland (including minors), people who were denied access to Europe and were forced to come back to unsafe ports after having crossed the sea… And obviously, the human rights defenders who try to help them stand on the front lines.

What type of attacks on human rights defenders have you documented?

Firstly, the prosecution itself. We see how defenders are prosecuted for their solidarity with migrants and refugees. And it is not just that, it is the fact that the criminal processes take years and years, and those defenders who live in the places where they work suffer from isolation. Secondly, the delay in the processes. Defenders face criminal charges and this delay does not allow the investigation to be closed, so defenders live with the threat of a sentence. As a result, other defenders who could be interested in protecting migrants and refugees become more careful or afraid of getting involved. The states know this. They know what they are doing by trying to prevent people arriving to seek asylum in Europe. And the way they are doing it is by intimidating and criminalising human rights defenders, because they are ones who can help and protect those refugees and migrants. It is a very cynical strategy by the states.

What should the European Union do?

This is happening in the EU, which was founded on the values of human rights and global justice. So,I’m calling the EU to address the protection of migrants and refugees in a fair and ethical manner.It’s not only about the EU, but we must remember that the EU was founded on these human rights values and that it has specific guidelines on defenders that must be taken into account. The hostile environment that is within the EU towards refugees and migrants needs to be readdressed, as the consequences are also affecting those defenders who try to protect them. Deaths, disappearances, push-backs… All this needs to be addressed in a fair and adequate manner which, I’m afraid, is not happening.

The paradigm of this prosecution of human rights defenders is the blockade of the German Iuventa ship in Trapani (Italy) and the charges faced by part of its crew. Why did the Rapporteur Commission send a letter to the Italian government and make a public statement about this and other cases?

As you know, the Iuventa case is one of the cases that concern me the most. The investigation and the prosecution of the four crew members was initiated in 2017, and it’s still ongoing.

An excerpt from the letter sent by the UN Special Rapporteur and other international organisations to the Italian government expressing their concern for the situation of human rights defenders and asylum seekers in the Mediterranean

If condemned, they face over 20-year prison sentences just for doing their humanitarian work in the Central Mediterranean. To what have you come to criminalise people who are trying to save the lives of the most poor and the most marginalised? We must remember that they had already saved the lives of 40,000 people who were in danger at sea.

Another case you have been working on is the prosecution of Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder in Greece. Why is this process special?

Sarah and Seán are just two idealistic young people who need to be supported, not prosecuted. They have been investigated for three years now, just for having spent their youth supporting migrants and asylum seekers.

Tweet from Mary Lawlor on the 22nd of January 2022 reporting about the progress with the conversations with the Greek government.

If authorities find them guilty, they could face up to 25-year prison sentences just for saving people’s lives. Once again we must ask ourselves, “Why should they be condemned? Why are they being prosecuted when they were only expressing the most humanitarian and idealistic principle: the principle of saving lives?”.

An excerpt from the letter sent by the UN Special Rapporteur to the Greek government showing her concern about the prosecution against Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder.

An excerpt of the answer from the Greek government to the letter sent by the UN Special Rapporteur showing her concern about the prosecution against Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder.

Being prosecuted for trying to save lives is inhuman and cruel. Once again, we need human rights defenders to protect the migrants and the refugees that arrive in Europe.

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