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Europe: New report highlights increased criminalisation against migrants’ rights defenders

News release

Geneva-Paris, November 15, 2021 - In recent years, attacks on human rights organisations and activists working to defend migrants’ rights have increased dramatically in Europe. Migrant deaths have also soared, 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. However, policies to deter migration and seal off borders continue to prevail over the imperative to respect human rights and save lives at both European Union and member State level. This, coupled with an overall closing civic space in the region, has increased pressure on individuals and organisations that continue to raise their voices to defend migrants’ rights and provide assistance to people in distress at Europe’s land and sea borders, as documented by the Observatory (OMCT-FIDH) in a report published today.

The report, titled Europe: Open Season on Solidarity, provides an analysis of the patterns of criminalisation of solidarity through the voices of those defending migrants’ rights throughout Europe. Its findings are based on 20 interviews with organisations and defenders in 11 European countries, as well as with civil society networks working on this issue at a European and global level. Three concerning patterns are consistently observed across the continent: the creation of a hostile environment, a rise in stigmatising narratives, often amounting to hate speech, against migrants and those working in their defence, and the hindering of the work of these defenders and their organisations which, in some cases, leads to their criminal prosecution.

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. In many cases, stigmatisation and hate speech have escalated to acts of physical violence against rights defenders. Smear campaigns, defamation and public accusations have led to many organisations in countries such as Cyprus, Hungary and Turkey being shut down or banned. In Italy and Greece, various administrative pretexts are used to prevent civilian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

Protecting peoples’ lives is a legitimate activity” said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General. “It is indefensible that EU migration directives and corresponding State policies criminalize individuals who show simple solidarity with the women, men and children on the move. In such cases, States should systematically apply the provision in EU law that allows for humanitarian assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.”

This leads to situations such as what occurred in France and Switzerland, where seven mountain guides were 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.

This situation goes against the fundamental values upon which the European Union is founded, such as the respect for human rights and dignity, equality, tolerance and solidarity,” said Alexis Deswaef of FIDH. “The EU and member States should overhaul their approach to migration, by placing human rights at its core, and recognise civil society’s fundamental role in ensuring their respect. This includes refraining from criminalising, or otherwise obstructing activities aimed at defending migrants’ rights and ending all forms of harassment, including criminal prosecution, against them”.

The attacks and restrictions to the work of migrants’ rights defenders documented in this report take place against the backdrop of a progressively shrinking space for civil society across Europe, which disproportionately affects organisations and individuals working to defend the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. The Observatory calls on the EU and its member States to urgently address this issue and ensure that civil society organisations and human rights defenders can operate in a safe and enabling space, free from intimidation, harassment, arbitrary restrictions, criminal prosecution, and violence.

Read the report here.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH. The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. OMCT and FIDH are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

For further information, please contact:

  • OMCT: Iolanda Jaquemet in Geneva (French, English, Italian, Spanish) +41 79 539 41 06
  • FIDH: Marc de Boni in Paris (French, English) +33 6 722 842 94