In recent years, attacks on human rights organisations and activists working on migrants’ rights have increased dramatically in Europe. Defamation, threats, verbal and physical attacks, administrative sanctions and judicial harassment are used to deter human rights defenders from working with migrants and from combating the ever-growing xenophobia and racism in Europe, which are being used by both state and non-state actors.
Although individuals and organisations continue to defend migrants’ rights and provide assistance to people fleeing war from their countries to Europe and sea borders, human rights defenders are even increasingly labelled as traitors who are threatening national security and they face intimidation and abuse.
In this context, where seven mountain guides are criminalised as traffickers for assisting migrants stuck in the snow in the middle of winter, or the 13-year prison sentence given to former mayor Domenico Lucano for welcoming migrants in southern Italy.
The obligation of states to respect, protect, facilitate and not obstruct the work of human rights defenders has been recognised by a number of UN human rights bodies, however a large number of states are imposing legal or other restrictions on the work of migrant rights defenders.
Migrant’s Human Rights Abuses by States:
Migrant deaths have increased, with 1,146 people losing their lives in the Mediterranean Sea in the first half of 2021 alone, and more than 40,000 people having drowned since 2014.
In Libya, the Coast Guard work with the Italian government to return migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean and transport them to Libya although the forcible return of refugees is a violation of Libyan and international law. This is an example of complicity of European States, which continue to shamefully empower the Libyan Coast Guard.
In Greece, unacceptable and extreme violence against human rights activists defending migrants’ rights have been practiced, where lawyers are threatened and physically attacked in Athens as they were assisting migrants in the course of asylum and other legal procedures. Moreover, some Council of Europe countries criminalise the work of defenders on migrants’ rights, as activists face detention, prosecution and/or a fine.
Thousands of migrants are kept in detention in Europe in bad conditions, amounting to torture and other forms of ill-treatment. In some cases, defenders, lawyers and national human rights institutions are denied visits to migrant detention facilities.
The demonisation of migrants who have not been able to access safe and legal channels to enter Europe is the first step leading to the attacks against those showing solidarity with them. This is coupled with the lack of adequate interpretation and the complexities of asylum and legal procedures, which makes it difficult for migrants to challenge detention and human rights abuses.
Global Rights Watch Call On Supporting Human Rights Defenders
Despite the important pronouncements on international law, an increasing number of states have been imposing legal or other restrictions on the work of migrant rights defenders, and contributing to worsening the situation of migrants.
National authorities should end impunity, by carrying out effective investigations into all physical or other violence against migrants and defenders, and by prosecuting and imposing adequate punishment on the offenders.
The EU and member states should priotise human rights over everything else, and recognise civil society’s fundamental role in ensuring their respect. States should apply the provision in EU law that allows for humanitarian assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. The essential work carried out by human rights defenders should be recognised and supported by national authorities, especially in cases of risk.