A number of European countries – Malta included – were strongly criticised by human rights organisation Amnesty International for misusing anti-smuggling and counter-terrorism measures to target those who help refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.
In a new report, titled “Punishing compassion: solidarity on trial in Fortress Europe,” the organisation documented the misuse of laws to target human rights defenders in an apparent attempt to deter migration.
The report examined cases of “human rights defenders facing spurious charges” between 2017 and 2019 in Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and Malta.
“The increased focus on limiting and deterring arrivals in Europe has meant that making refugees or migrants feel safer or welcomed is seen as a threat,” Amnesty International researcher Elisa de Pieri said.
“The failure of European states to fulfil the basic needs of refugees and migrants means it is often left to ordinary people to provide essential services and support. By punishing the people who step up to fill the gaps, European governments are putting people on the move at even greater risk.”
Denying safe haven to those in distress
In its report, Amnesty highlighted that whenever NGOs rescuing people at sea sought to disembark in a safe haven, Malta refused them access – or refused to even reply – with such consistency that they would ultimately cease trying to contact Malta altogether.
This had been the case with Open Arms, a rescue vessel manned by a Spanish NGO, when it ended up disembarking 218 people in Pozzallo on 17 March, 2018. The vessel ended up seized by Italian authorities, but proceedings against the NGO were eventually dismissed.
Amnesty also highlighted Malta’s decision to launch criminal proceedings against the Claus Peter Reisch, the captain of another NGO-operated ship, the Lifeline. The ship had disembarked in Malta after remaining stranded for five days with no country offering safe haven, and after refusing to hand over the 218 people it rescued to Libya over safety concerns.
Reisch had been fined €10,000 after being charged with entering Maltese waters on a ship that had not been appropriately registered, but the conviction was quashed on appeal last January.
“The criminal prosecution against a human rights defender initiated in highly politicised circumstances was defeated, but not before having caused the lifesaving activities of a small NGO to stop for some 18 months and having put considerable financial strain on the accused and the NGO,” Amnesty observed.
Hijacking charge against teenage asylum seekers condemned
Amnesty was also critical of Malta’s decision to arrest three teenaged asylum seekers – two of which were minors – last March on suspicion of having hijacked the ship which had rescued them, to prevent the captain from returning them to Libya. The three are presently on bail, but their detention in a high-security section of the Corradino Correctional Facility – and the failure to appoint a legal guardian for the two minors – was also criticised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The human rights NGO interviewed two of the three youths, who said that there was a commotion when they realised that El Hiblu 1, the tanker that had rescued them, had taken them to Libya. People protested that in Libya, detainees were tortured, that women were at risk of rape, and that others may be detained privately by some who would extort ransoms from their families.
Amnesty noted that the evidence showed that at no point was violence used against the ship’s crew, and said that the youths appeared to have acted reasonably to defend themselves and the other migrants “in a manner proportionate to the degree of danger that they and the others would have faced.” Additionally, the use of counter-terrorism laws against the three teenagers was deemed especially problematic.
Criminalised for offering warm clothes and shelter
Elsewhere in Europe, Amnesty was highly critical of countries’ decision to prosecute people who helped asylum seekers in distress.
The cases highlighted by Amnesty include a 55-year-old French mountain guide, Pierre Mumber, who was accused of facilitating irregular entry into France for offering warm clothes and hot tea to people crossing the snowy Alps.
In Switzerland, several people, including a pastor, were convicted for sheltering or helping foreign nationals accessing protection in similar circumstances.
Human rights defenders ‘deserve protection’
Amnesty noted that those who acted to help and protect human rights were defined as human rights defenders in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, with states required to guarantee a safe environment in which they can operate.
By prosecuting those who rescue and otherwise assist migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, Amnesty argued, many European countries were in breach of this principle.
“History will not look kindly on governments that treat saving lives as a crime,” de Pieri said.
“Many people across Europe have shown far greater compassion and humanity towards people seeking safety than their governments have. It is outrageous that human rights defenders are being targeted by callous authorities bent on closing their borders at all costs, including people’s lives.”