UN warns of siege of countries against defenders of migrants and refugees

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“There was a time when being nice to people was seen as a good thing, but solidarity is now being criminalized.” Variations of this phrase have been reproduced by Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, at every possible opportunity in recent weeks.

The Irishwoman, who before joining the multilateral organization founded and directed the NGO Front Line Defenders, after all, says she is concerned about what she described in a recent 24-page report as a process of legal and police siege put in place by different countries against activists. that help refugees and immigrants.

“I was horrified when I discovered the amount of accusations, arrests and even physical assaults that some defenders have suffered simply for helping immigrants,” Lawlor tells Sheet. “These are charges that can be very serious: promoting illegal immigration, human trafficking, espionage; it’s shocking.”

From the beginning of 2020 to June this year, the rapporteur sent at least 36 communications to 21 countries expressing concern about what was happening in their territories with refugee defenders. Mexico (6), Italy (5), Malaysia (3) and Greece (3) lead the list as the most triggered by the UN red alert.

The document that Lawlor presented at the last session of the United Nations General Assembly, the result of what he observed over two years of reporting — and an entire career dedicated to the subject — reserves significant space for the European Union, one of the main destinations for migrants. countries in Africa and, more recently, Ukraine.

The report mentions, for example, a survey by the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, an NGO based in Brussels, according to which 89 people were prosecuted in the EU from January 2021 to March this year after providing humanitarian aid to refugees arriving in countries- block members.

In 88% of the cases, human rights defenders were denounced for facilitating the entry of irregular immigrants or even for smuggling people, depending on local legislation. Already in 28% of them were taken to justice for alleged crimes of money laundering, espionage and affiliation to a criminal organization.

Lawlor mentions, among others, the case of three immigrants from Eritrea, a country on the east African coast, who were granted asylum in Italy, but were arrested in 2016 on suspicion of promoting illegal immigration.

The allegation was supported by the activities of Afewerki Gebremedhn, Abraha Ghebrehiwet and Hintsa Mebrahtom during 2014 and 2015, when they helped other immigrants with basic information about the country, such as the best way to find accommodation.

They were imprisoned in Rome for two years, until, in May of this year, they were acquitted by the Italian court of last resort. The court argued that the evidence was insufficient and that the crime therefore did not exist.

The rapporteur also highlights with concern the case of Libya. There, she says, she has received reports from defenders who allege they have been tortured and harassed — some, sexually. They claim they have been accused of conspiring against the stability of the country and of trying to “colonize” the territory with immigrants.

Others said they were banned from visiting migrants held in prisons where there were known human rights violations.

Lawlor told Sheet that Brazil has not added to the list of persecution of activists in the area of ​​migration and refuge. But he stressed that the country is very concerned with regard to violence by environmental defenders and indigenous peoples. The Irishwoman said she had “several conversations” with top Brazilian diplomats on the subject.

“Attacks on human rights defenders, by state or non-state actors, must be investigated, and this starts with political will,” says the rapporteur, who calls for more proactiveness from states in the report’s conclusions. “Compassion is not a crime.”

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