Migration policy overspill: access to information in peril


It is well-documented that the externalisation of migration and border policies by the EU and other western states has led to appalling violations of human rights. While this is by far the most important issue resulting from border externalisation, there are also many other negative effects - including attacks on the right to access and impart information.

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If you know of more cases in which access to and freedom of information has been undermined by the enforcement of migration policies, please let us know: comms [at] statewatch.org


Since the 1990s, the externalisation of migration policy promoted by the EU and its member states has resulted in discrimination and human rights abuses in the name of improving migration management and border controls in foreign states. Incentives such as funding, equipment, training and visa facilitation have sought to convince governments – for example, in Morocco and Libya – to adopt and enforce legislation, policies and practices to more strictly control and punish irregular migration. This has promoted police raids against migrants, the construction of detention facilities, the purchase of surveillance equipment, forced and collective expulsions, and other harmful and abusive activities.

Documented abuses linked to such endeavours include mass arrests of migrant workers (often disregarding legal status, including destruction of valid certificates and documents) at politically convenient times, such as meetings with EU institutions and member states.[1] Conditions in places of detention are often found by courts to be degrading and technically unlawful, even within EU states.[2] The decision to externalise these practices to third states where standards are likely to be worse cannot, therefore, be deemed innocent.

It is of course not only in foreign states that such practices take place. Over time, border-mongers and profiteers in the EU (from the political, security and industrial milieux) have resorted to increasingly outlandish measures to shore up a failing model – for example, by leaving people to die at sea as a supposed deterrent against irregular migration. For the authorities, the less that is known about the increasingly deadly and abusive policies implemented in the name of combating irregular migration, the better: the more information that becomes public, the greater the risk of problematic court judgments, campaigns, and public and political opposition.

Thus, one side effect of those policies has been a decline in transparency and attacks upon the rights of those seeking to acquire, receive and impart information, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists and activists. This is done through refusals to freedom of information requests; information blackouts by official bodies; direct intimidation of information providers; and by undermining the secrecy of journalists’ sources.

Freedom of information denied

Image: Artform Canada, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Freedom of information law has provided a vital means for civil society, and particularly journalists, to hold the powerful to account. This is also the case when it comes to the externalisation of migration controls.

In 2020, the Associazione Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione (ASGI) filed an access to information request concerning “cooperation” funds entrusted by the Italian government to third countries including Libya. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MAE) initially refused the request, but on 13 May 2020 the State Council (the body responsible for ensuring the legality of public administration) partially overturned the decision. The MAE refused access on the grounds that releasing the documents could prejudice relations between Italy and UN agency the International Organization for Migration (IOM), not just in Libya but also in other countries where cooperation takes place. However, the State Council ruled that refusal of a request based on mere mention of a protected interest is not adequate – there is a need for a meaningful assessment of the balance of competing interests.

The subsequent release of this information resulted in ASGI producing a report examining cooperation in Libya between the MAE, international organisations and NGOs.[3] The report provided the basis for a legal submission to the Italian Court of Auditors (Corte dei Conti) in January 2021.[4] The complaint argues that MAE’s cooperation activities in Libya benefit detention structures rather than detainees, as they have increased detention capacity at sites where people are routinely kept in inhuman conditions. The complaint goes on to highlight that despite a longstanding and notorious context of torture and mistreatment, the Italian government did not require any formal commitments from Libyan authorities to improve the conditions of detainees in a durable way. A petition to the European Parliament followed, ensuring a commitment to greater monitoring of the cooperation.[5] A subsequent request to the Italian development cooperation agency revealed that while there is a third-party monitoring mechanism in place on paper, in practice has never been used, providing a basis for further legal action.[6]

This is just one of many positive examples of how FOI laws have served the public good. But the authorities are also able to use FOI laws to refuse to release requested information on the grounds of upholding public security, international relations and so on. With regard to policies against irregular migration it must be considered whether these justifications also serve to cover up state crimes and malpractice – an issue that will be examined in more detail in a forthcoming Statewatch report.

In January 2021, Spain’s Transparency Council issued a ruling on a freedom of information request filed by AccessInfo Europe that sought a “descriptive report on the use of assistance conceded” to Morocco’s interior ministry “to finance activity for the fight against irregular immigration, migrant smuggling and people trafficking… within a framework of international police cooperation.” The request, which was filed as part of a campaign by a coalition of civil society groups, sought to find out what the funds disbursed to Morocco by Spain are used for in practice.[7] The Council backed up the initial decision of the interior ministry: access denied. Despite alarming reports from northern Morocco about police raids and operations targeting migrants, deaths at sea (which have increased over the last three years) and violence at the borders of  the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, secrecy was upheld on grounds of effectiveness, security and protection of international relations.[8]

“Intimidations towards activists and civil society are unacceptable and undemocratic.”

The fight for transparency over controversial border control activities has also gone all the way to the EU’s highest court. In September 2017 Arne Semsrott and Luisa Izuzquiza of German transparency organisation FragDenStaat filed an access to documents requested with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, seeking “information on the name, flag and type of each vessel deployed by Frontex in the central Mediterranean under Joint Operation Triton between 1 June and 30 August 2017.” Frontex refused the request, saying it would make it possible “to become aware of the current position of the patrolling vessels,” and thus aid “criminal networks involved in migrant smuggling and trafficking of human beings.”

Semsrott and Izuzquiza took the case to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) in Strasbourg, which agreed with Frontex’s refusal and ordered the activists to pay the border agency’s costs. In an appeal against the costs order, it transpired that Frontex had inflated the amount claimed for the use of private lawyers, and had charged for travel expenses to Brussels without providing any slightest explanation as to its purpose or necessity (this is, of course, the same agency that spent €94,000 on a dinner in Warsaw[9] and whose former director took an €8,500 private flight to a meeting in Brussels[10]). The CJEU thus more than halved the costs sought from the activists, from €23,700 to €10,520.[11] Prior to the ruling, a letter signed by 40 civil society organisations[12] (including Statewatch) had called for the agency to waive collection of this fee because it may intimidate citizens seeking access to documents.

Helen Derbyshire, Executive Director of AccessInfo Europe, welcomed the ruling but worried about lasting consequences:

It is very concerning that an EU body would, in effect, intimidate two members of European civil society in this way. While it is positive that the amount of the fees has been reduced, €10,000 is still a lot of money, and the chilling effect is still there.[13]

Semsrott and Izuzquiza offered some context to explain why the agency’s actions are troubling:

Intimidations towards activists and civil society are unacceptable and undemocratic. They are particularly so when they come from a border police force that’s currently undergoing three different investigations for, among other things, human rights violations, harassment and misconduct, and for having lied to the European Parliament. Frontex’s attempt to silence its critics through costly lawsuits should sound all sorts of alarms.”[14]

In a more explicit recent example of the undermining of freedom of information, the Italian interior ministry approved a decree that excludes vast swathes of documents concerning security, international relations and the management of borders and immigration (amongst other things) from the scope of freedom of information rules. The decree also massively expands the scope for refusing requests for official information. Duccio Facchini, an Italian journalist who first reported on the decree, told Statewatch that the new measures are:

“…part of a clear strategy that aims to nullify any glimmer of transparency on politics of externalisation, confinement and turning away of people who are on the move at Italian and European borders. These dynamics have been enacted for some time, well before the mentioned decree.”

Information blackouts

Image: be OH be, CC BY-NC 2.0

A further development that undermines freedom of information – and thus an informed public and political debate – is a decrease in the volume and quality of information made available by official authorities.

For example, the Italian Coast Guard’s annual report used to provide comprehensive descriptions and analysis of search and rescue (SAR) incidents and operations in the central Mediterranean. The authorities stopped making the report publicly available in 2019. Journalist Sergio Scandura of Radio Radicale laments that the central Mediterranean has become a “black hole” as far as the availability of official information on sea rescues is concerned.

“It is necessary to denounce what is going on because we’re talking about people drowning.”

In 2019, Spain’s Salvamento Marítimo (search and rescue service) was downscaled and placed under the command of a centralised control centre against irregular migration in the Strait of Gibraltar run by the Guardia Civil. Ismael Furió, president of the Confederación General de Trabajo, the principal union of Salvamento Marítimo workers, highlighted at the time that an information blackout is imposed by a centralised unit. “Now there is no information on the network about migrant rescues and it is difficult to find figures. The workers are also pressured not to speak to the press. I myself have been strictly rebuked for my public declarations, but I don’t mind. It is necessary to denounce what is going on because we’re talking about people drowning.”[15]

In practice, Spanish rescue crews are discouraged from intervening beyond territorial waters, at the same time as the interior ministry is cooperating with Morocco to ensure that it upgrades its own search-and-rescue capabilities without the rescued people entering EU territory. This approach has had deadly consequences, as over 2,000 deaths in the first half of 2021 (reported by Caminando Fronteras) showed.[16] Although most of these deaths occurred on the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands, there were also shipwrecks and deaths along the routes from Morocco and Algeria to Spain. There were also complaints about developments in the Canary Islands that mirror the Greek island detention scenario in terms of the violation of human rights and a drive to contain and deport migrants using an island-based “Canary cage”.[17]

Statewatch has also faced difficulties in accessing information that was once made public. In August 2020, we submitted a freedom of information request to the UK Home Office, seeking a copy of a “Declaration of Intent” agreed between the French and British government that created an “Operational Research Unit to combat migrant smuggling.” Similar such agreements had previously been published by the government,[18] but this time all that was offered to the public was a press release.[19] The Home Office subsequently refused the request, citing exemptions including national security, international relations and law enforcement. An appeal against the decision was also refused, after a lengthy wait of several months; and so we turned to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

a previous agreement with the French authorities that was published describes in detail the structures to be set up

In December 2021, the ICO concluded its investigation, agreeing that the Home Office was entitled to rely upon sections of the law that make information exempt from release if it is “supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters.” Those bodies include the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), as well as the National Crime Agency (NCA). The law thus entitles the authorities to keep such information secret – but a previous agreement with the French authorities that was published describes in detail the structures to be set up, and explicitly notes the role of “Border Force, National Crime Agency and other agencies.”[20] It is of course unknown precisely which security agencies are mentioned in the most recent agreement – but the simple fact of such a body being mentioned did not previously prevent the release of a similar document.

avoiding rescues, denying access to asylum proceedings and facilitating returns to situations involving torture and mistreatment clearly fit the description of illegal acts

One way to view this information void is as an attempt to hide irregular, or even illegal, acts committed by states to enforce rules against unauthorised mobility. One may refer to illegal acts because avoiding rescues, denying access to asylum proceedings and facilitating returns to situations involving torture and mistreatment clearly fit this description. Italy, Malta and Frontex have been communicating with, and sometimes coordinating, the “so-called Libyan Coast Guard” to enact pullbacks to camps where such conditions are well documented.[21] Scandura’s monitoring of flight routes, the positions of naval vessels and attempted crossings and SAR events in the central Mediterranean has become a vital information source in this context. For his troubles, Scandura was among several lawyers, journalists and activists whose communications were intercepted in the framework of investigations targeting NGOs, whose activity was framed as a form of organised crime.

Direct intimidation of information providers

Image: Bob Bob, CC BY 2.0

From Greece to the UK, journalists and civil society activists seeking to gather and impart information on the situations faced by migrants and refugees have faced harassment, intimidation and criminalisation by the authorities. As with refusals to respond to freedom of information requests and reductions in the public provision of official information, the aim appears to be to prevent greater public knowledge about policies that increasingly rely on abuse and harm.

the dehumanisation of migrants and portrayal of NGOs that assist people on the move as an “enemy within” deflects attention from state misdeeds

In Greece, journalists and NGOs have been targets of police and judicial interference (sometimes added to by racists and far-right militants) since the New Democracy government took office in 2019. A March 2022 report by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom[22] highlighted several challenges for independent reporting in Greece:

“Migration policy, human rights violations committed in its implementation including pushbacks, and the humanitarian crisis that the refugee stream has created are highly sensitive topics for the government. Reporting on the issue is increasingly difficult, as journalists face obstructions including arbitrary arrest and detention, restriction of access to migration hotspots, surveillance, and harassment.”

The dehumanisation of migrants and portrayal of NGOs that assist people on the move as an “enemy within” for defaming Greek authorities while assisting “hybrid threats” including the Turkish government’s belligerent attitude have been used to deflect attention from state misdeeds committed in the Aegean and at land borders. Journalists receive vitriol if they file critical reports. Finnish academics were even asked to withdraw a paper on reception conditions and state practices on Lesvos, or to publish a letter from the Greek ambassador in Helsinki alongside it.[23] The letter exemplifies the discourse employed, mystification and the idea that only information from Greek authorities has any validity. From this perspective, migrants are not upset about their conditions, but rather, NGOs fan their discontent for political purposes.

Josoor, an organisation that monitors the situation of refugees in Turkey, recently lost funding following an investigation by Greek authorities that framed the activity of NGOs as organised crime.[24] Aegean Boat Report, which undertakes a similar task in the Aegean Sea to that carried out by Sergio Scandura in the central Mediterranean, was also targeted in an investigation that sought to criminalise NGOs.

Engaging with contacts from grassroots groups in the Balkan region and Greece, Statewatch has heard accounts of people compelled to withdraw from migrant support activities due to threats received from police officers and far-right activists. Such examples show the structural effects that a dysfunctional policy field is having on state structures and, ideologically, how overt racism has fed into the political mainstream to be used against people acting to support migrants and refugees. The latter, this argument claims, favour migrants over their own compatriots and are harming Greece for the benefit of “others”, including Turkey. 

“The effect that they have is to remove eyes and ears from the most sensitive areas in Europe at the moment, that is, its borders.”

Two Italian freelance journalists, Valerio Muscella and Michele Lapini, were detained for 14 hours near the French-Italian border when they were documenting border crossings by migrants embarking on “secondary movements” after entering the EU through the Balkan route. On the night of Easter Monday (5 April 2021), they were stopped by the French border police (PAF) in the woods between Clavière and Montgènevre, as they accompanied eight men of Iranian and Afghan nationality. The journalists were stopped with the group on suspicion of being smugglers, to which they responded by showing their accreditation as photojournalists. Their lawyer, Andrea Ronchi, complained that “we cannot allow a European citizen to be detained in European territory without understanding why.” He went further, by pointing to the effects of such actions by the PAF: 

I believe that was has happened is similar to what we are seeing on a wider scale at the moment. These investigations have the effect of saying that the police are in the mountains and there must not be any journalists, like at sea there is the Libyan Coast Guard and there must not be any NGOs. The effect that they have is to remove eyes and ears from the most sensitive areas in Europe at the moment, that is, its borders.”[25]

One of those borders is in the Canary Islands. The discretional power granted to Spanish police officers by the 2014 Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana (law on citizens’ security, often referred to as the “gag law”) has led to fines being imposed for documenting practices used by authorities. Javier Baulauz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who sought to document the holding of people arriving in the Canary Islands by sea on the Arguineguín dock, was given a €1,000 fine by the police for doing so.

Interviewed by Público newspaper,[26] Baulauz declared that he would refuse to pay the fine, that it was outrageous that police statements suffice to impose a fine without the chance to argue one’s case, and that events did not mirror the allegations made against him. “The fines are unfair, so we’ll see when they block my account, but, to start off with, it’s pathetic. Also, the absolute impunity that the authorities enjoy when they commit crimes is fascinating,” he said.

journalists are the recipients of two-thirds of the fines issued under the Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana

Baulauz highlights that, during the seven months in 2020 when he covered arrivals in the Canary Islands, reporters often faced a police cordon that prevented them from doing their work or enter the overcrowded holding centre migrants were held in, which he describes as a “concentration camp”. On 29 November 2020, access to the Arguineguín dock in Gran Canaria was allowed, but he was grabbed, obstructed, identified and told off by officers as he went about his work, and he answered back.

He received two fines (journalists are the recipients of two-thirds of the fines issued under the Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana for “disobedience or refusal to identify oneself (art. 36.6) and for disrespecting police officers (art. 37.4). Baulauz was particularly critical of the Spanish government for failing to repeal the law which came into force in 2015 despite criticising it on the campaign trail: “If a progressive government is unable to derogate this law, it should at least remove its most unfair and arbitrary points, like these two articles”.

The intimidation of journalists going about their work to document the treatment reserved to asylum seekers has also spread to the UK. On 25 January 2021, Andy Aichison, a freelancer and NUJ member, was arrested and held for seven hours after taking photographs of a protest outside Napier Barracks in Folkestone, a site used to host asylum seekers.[27] The NUJ national freelance organiser, Pamela Morton, expressed her concern to The Guardian:

News gatherers are key workers and it is their role and duty to report on matters of public interest. The police should not be seeking to interfere, prevent or restrict what journalists record in this way.”[28]

Whether the pressure is exerted by third country governments and power brokers, by police forces and investigative authorities of member states or by right-wing activists, groups and keyboard warriors, the pressure against journalists and NGOs documenting rights abuses by states is unrelenting and expansive. Helena Maleno’s longstanding work for the NGO Caminando Fronteras has earned her plaudits for contributing to save lives and documenting human rights abuses. She was practically the sole provider of information on crucial issues including deaths at borders, shipwrecks, distress calls and police raids and unlawful expulsions.

That work led to judicial proceedings against her in which she was acquitted in both Spain and Morocco, before she was unceremoniously expelled from Morocco on a flight to Barcelona on 23 January 2021 after landing in Tangiers (where she lived) on a flight from Spain.[29] This deportation resulted in her separation from her daughter, who was at home in Tangiers, for 32 days. Asked about why she blamed Spanish and Moroccan authorities for a decision taken and executed by the latter, Maleno told El Diario newspaper:

My Calvary, my criminalisation, began with a report drawn up by the [Spanish] Policía Nacional - specifically the Central Unit for Illegal Immigration Networks and False Documentation [UCRIF Central] - in cooperation with the European Border Agency [Frontex]. It all started with these reports and this police cooperation. It was the Spanish police that asked Morocco to sentence me to life imprisonment. When we won these trials, both police forces continued working jointly, through police alerts, without restoring my rights and they have continued harassing both me and my family”.

Apart from highlighting cooperation between member states and third countries in the criminalisation of human rights defenders at a time when states are actively undermining the rule of law to achieve migration policy goals, Maleno assigns a role in this process to Frontex. Observers have noticed that proceedings against NGOs, people acting in solidarity and sources of critical information in Italy and Greece coincided with the deployment of EU Regional Task Forces in Catania (Sicily) and Piraeus (Athens) hosting EU agencies, and their interaction with national authorities and bodies.

Secrecy of journalists’ sources and the regularity of judicial proceedings

Image: Morten Nisker Toppenberg, CC BY-NC 2.0

An article by Andrea Palladino for Domani newspaper in April 2021 revealed the existence of thousands of pages of transcripts drawn from telephone calls involving people working on migration policy, its human rights implications and externalisation to Libya.[30] There was outrage regarding the violation of professional secrets and the confidentiality of sources that is protected by the Italian code of penal procedures. It emerged that at least five investigative journalists had their communications intercepted, among other actors, in an investigation into the work of sea rescue NGOs initiated by the Trapani (Sicily) prosecutors’ office.

These interceptions by the judicial police were authorised regarding Nancy Porsia, a specialist on Libya who revealed collusion between the Libyan Coast Guard and traffickers and has received death threats for her work as well as being refused entry into the north African country.  Other reporters including Scandura (Radio Radicale, see above), Francesca Mannocchi (L’Espresso and others), Nello Scavo (Avvenire), Antonio Massari (Il Fatto Quotidiano), Fausto Biloslavo (Il Giornale) and Claudia Di Pasquale (Report) were also intercepted.

the harassment of journalists via interceptions also has the effect of intimidating their sources

Porsia communications with her lawyer Alessandra Ballerini were intercepted. They included sensitive content, an indicator of the expansiveness of such practices and of the effects of criminalisation spreading from the right to information to the functioning of the justice system and the rule of law, including guarantees of fair trials. In this case, the harassment of journalists via interceptions also has the effect of intimidating their sources, which may lead to reluctance to provide information because they risk identification by Italian authorities and, subsequently, their Libyan counterparts.

These interceptions date back to 2017, at a time when an Italian prosecutor publicly voiced concerns and insinuations about NGO activities that were picked up on by political figures like the former foreign affairs minister, Luigi di Maio of the Five Star Movement (FSM). Controversy followed claims by the Catania public prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, leading to him appearing before the Italian Senate Defence Committee in a May 2017 hearing to investigate the role of the Navy and of NGOs in sea rescues.[31] In the hearing, Zuccaro highlighted the excellent cooperation of his prosecutors’ office with Frontex and raised the need to conduct investigations into various aspects of sea rescue NGOs’ activities, including their funding and possible collusion with traffickers. However, when pressed about what concrete evidence there was to justify such suspicions, Zuccaro had to admit to a lack of concrete evidence. Rather, he finally admitted, the issue was whether private individuals can act in opposition to state and EU policies. The question that should have followed was not asked: namely, whether this applies if states pursue policies amounting to crimes under national, EU and international law, including leaving people to drown and a system of torture and mistreatment in Libyan detention camps.

FNSI (Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana), the federation of the Italian press, reacted angrily to what it saw as a frontal attack on press freedom.[32] The FNSI president, Giuseppe Giulietti, had a number of questions:

Who approved such measures and why?

Was it an attempt to discover sources, thus violating professional secrecy?

For what reason were the interceptions of communications between reporter Nancy Porsia and her legal counsel Alessandra Ballerini transcribed?

Why, and this is a more troubling detail, were parts concerning investigations on Giulio Regeni [a PhD student who was killed in Egypt after having worked with trade unions] transcribed?

These questions go beyond the mere issue of interception, to convey what this may mean in systemic terms for journalism, the transparency and fairness of judicial proceedings, and the use of investigative powers. Former prosecuting magistrate Armando Spataro commented on  these developments on Radio Radicale by pointing to alarming irregularities,[33] including the transcription of a huge volume of communications that were either protected or irrelevant for the investigation into NGOs. Furthermore, Spataro deemed it irregular for the judicial police to have played a role in the selection and description (for instance, classifying conversations and/or people as “important”) of the communications to be transcribed and stored. This function should be conducted by prosecutors, who should exclude material that is not central to the proceedings in question.

investigative authorities may be gaining insights into lawyers’ defence strategies through these practices

Likewise, at a round table of lawyers in Messina (Sicily)[34] that followed these revelations, a lawyer who had sought information from Nancy Porsia about the Libyan situation to use in her cases was shocked that information she received but would have never disclosed in public was contained in the interception transcripts. Ballerini, a lawyer, had spoken of details of her flight to Cairo to Porsia (for whom she acts as a legal counsel) that could have placed her in danger as she pursued her inquiries regarding the killing of Giulio Regeni in 2016 by Egyptian security personnel. The Regeni case has had diplomatic repercussions for Italian-Egyptian relations, but another concern is that investigative authorities may be gaining insights into lawyers’ defence strategies through these practices. This is even more of a cause of concern due to information showing that a priest, Mussie Zerai, had his communications intercepted when he contacted a senator (Luigi Manconi), the civil protection and the public security authorities regarding a large-scale eviction in Rome; he was hoping to find alternative accommodation for those evicted, many of whom had refugee status.

One such report by Zach Campbell and Lorenzo D’Agostino delved deeper into the investigative practices[35] used in Italy following deployment of the EU Regional Task Force in Catania. Investigations to undermine the work of NGOs that save people at sea were conducted using strategies originally devised for and deployed against terrorism and Mafia-like crime syndicates. This adds to statements by Catania public prosecutor Zuccaro,[36] showing that Frontex and the Anti-Mafia Directorate cooperated and drew on the implication of unsubstantiated claims that NGOs are accomplices of traffickers, despite more credible evidence pointing to traffickers and unsavoury elements being partners of the EU and member states, namely Italy and Malta.[37]

“When the intelligence agencies ‘protect us from defending rights’ it is not only cynical but outright dangerous for democracy”.

Comparable developments also occurred in Greece, where the Lesbos Police Directorate reported on 28 September 2020 that 33 people from four NGOs faced charges including “espionage”, “violation of state secrets”, “creation of and participation in a criminal organisation” and “violation of immigration law”. The targeted organisations include Mare Liberum, Sea Watch, Josoor International Solidarity, AlarmPhone and FFM. They are allegedly responsible for “having provided confidential information to refugee flows from Turkey via closed groups and internet applications under the guise of humanitarian action.”[38] The World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) expressed concern about the targeting of human rights defenders, highlighting the involvement of Greek intelligence services and the police anti-terrorism unit in investigations. OMCT Secretary-General Gerald Staberock commented that:

Our intelligence and counter-terrorism services must protect our security and rights. When ‘they protect us from defending rights’ it is not only cynical but outright dangerous for democracy”.

In December 2020, the Greek minister for migration and asylum, Notis Mitarachi, accused Norwegian NGO Aegean Boat Report (ABR) of facilitating illegal crossings into Greece. Both ABR and Josoor International Solidarity strongly rejected the claims against them. After denying any collusion with smugglers, ABR’s statement gets to the core of this problem:

We have broken no law, we do not work with anyone who does, and it is inexplicable that a Minister of the Greek government would seek to launch such a wild attack on a small organisation trying to ensure that people forced by Greek and EU policy to take dangerous journeys presided over by criminals do not die and are not lost to the system.”[39]

Josoor’s Natalie Gruber noted that these efforts appear to aim to silence and defame them:

It is clear that the Greek government wants to inhibit reporting on its human rights violations. This time, even the media has been manipulated to seek to discredit and defame us, along with the other three accused NGOs, before any charges were brought against us, diverting attention from reports of their own crimes.”[40]

Even former Frontex executive co-director Gil Arias expressed his fears that Frontex may be infiltrated by far-right elements in an interview to the Spanish newspaper Público,[41] in which he complained about its militarisation and arms acquisition (“more of a problem than a solution”), among concerns that include lobbying by security providers. He was critical of Leggeri, claimed that Frontex was an accomplice of human rights violations experienced by migrants, and described the executive director as a driver of the agency’s “drift” towards the positions of anti-migration hardliners.

The general strategy of the hardliners is to harass, delegitimise, demoralise and criminalise  migrant support activities through various means: evoking possible collusion with traffickers, framing their activities as organised crime, or challenging their right to oppose state policy. Of course, many of those policies involve criminal acts and the negation of positive values including non-discrimination, the rule of law and the frameworks of international and human rights law. The ultimate aim is to neutralise checks, balances and accountability.

Conclusion: In praise of journalists and civil society

We know that the EU, Italy and Malta’s Libyan partners who profit from externalisation are linked to the traffickers that these policies are supposed to fight. We know that the “pull factor” thesis was asserted after 2014 to portray deaths at sea as a solution to irregular entry that would have the added benefit of dissuading others from attempting sea crossings, up to the point of structurally undermining the law of the sea.[42] We know that Libya is unsafe, but the EU orchestrated the creation of a Libyan search and rescue zone to guarantee that if people do not drown, they will be returned to torturous conditions in hellish Libyan camps for migrants whose creation the EU and its member states have demanded and funded since the turn of the millennium.[43] We know that one means of deportation used by partners in third countries is to abandon people in the desert to their fate, like we know that Libya is in an intermittent state of civil war that further endangers migrants and Libyans. We know that criminal groups have diversified their sources of income thanks to the EU’s border control model, and that there are links between them and the authorities, like there are links between formal and informal camps. Slavery and the sale of human beings are practices that have been normalised by the dehumanisation of migrants and refugees promoted by the EU beyond its borders. Just as importantly, journalists, researchers and activists have shown that the Libyan coast guard is coordinated and informed by Italian, Frontex and Maltese assets, which means the EU and its states are directly enabling refoulements to torture and systemic mistreatment including degrading living conditions. Despite concerted actions and intense efforts deployed by the EU, member states and authorities in third countries, sometimes in parallel to far-right activists, information about state crimes is plentiful.

We have that information thanks to journalists like Nancy Porsia, Franesca Mannocchi, Sara Creta, Nello Scavo, Sergio Scandura, as well as large organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and small ones like Medici per i Diritti Umani (MEDU), Rivolti ai Balcani and Melting Pot Europa. Elsewhere, along the Balkan route, Aegean Boat Report, Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), Are You Syrious? and No Name Kitchen are gathering and publishing information about routine violence and pushback practices that state authorities would rather conceal. It is vital that people stand up to ensure that the rights to gather, receive and impart information are upheld and not degraded any further.

Yasha Maccanico

If you know of more cases in which access to and freedom of information has been undermined by the enforcement of migration policies, please let us know: comms [at] statewatch.org


[1] ‘UNICEF Libya Flash Update 1: Migrant raids and detention’, 4 October 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/libya/unicef-libya-flash-update-1-migrant-raids-and-detention-4-october-2021; ‘Aid, border security and EU-Morocco cooperation on migration control’, Statewatch, 24 November 2019, https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2019/aid-border-security-and-eu-morocco-cooperation-on-migration-control/; Yasha Maccanico, ‘Morocco: Wherever EU immigration policy rears its ugly head, violence and abuses follow’, Statewatch, October 2018, https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/analyses/no-334-morocco-migration-expulsions.pdf; ‘EU/Africa: Chilling details of refoulements from Morocco revealed’, Statewatch, June 2007, https://www.statewatch.org/news/2007/june/eu-africa-chilling-details-of-refoulements-from-morocco-revealed/; ‘Escape from Tripoli: Report on the conditions of migrants in transit in Libya’, FORTRESS EUROPE, November 2007, https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/news/2007/nov/fortress-europe-libya-report.pdf 

[2] CILD staff, ‘Adam e i suoi 153 giorni di detenzione illegittima al CPR di Potenza’, 10 October 2022, https://cild.eu/blog/2022/10/10/adam-e-i-suoi-153-giorni-di-illegittima-detenzione-al-cpr-di-potenza/; Elisa García España, ‘Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros: Motivos para su desaparición’, Boletín Criminológico, September 2017, http://www.boletincriminologico.uma.es/boletines/172.pdf; ‘Migrants in detention’, June 2022, https://www.echr.coe.int/documents/fs_migrants_detention_eng.pdf

[3] ‘Profili critici delle attività delle ONG italiane nei centri di detenzione in Libia con fondi A.I.C.S.’, July 2020,  https://sciabacaoruka.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Profili-critici-delle-attività-delle-ONG-italiane-nei-centri-di-detenzione-in-Libia-con-fondi-AICS-1.pdf

[4] ASGI press statement, ‘La Corte dei Conti avvii un’indagine sull’uso dei fondi pubblici nei centri di detenzione in Libia’ , 27 January 2021, https://www.asgi.it/asilo-e-protezione-internazionale/corte-dei-conti-fondi-pubblici-nei-centri-di-detenzione-libia/

[5] ‘Petizione sulla mala gestione dei fondi in Libia: Il Parlamento UE accoglie le richieste di ARCI, ASGI e GLAN’, ASGI, 2 September 2021, https://www.asgi.it/asilo-e-protezione-internazionale/petizione-mala-gestione-fondi-in-libia-parlamento-ue-accoglie-richieste/

[6] ‘È stato attivato un sistema di monitoraggio per i progetti AICS nei centri di detenzione in Libia?’, ASGI, 11 October 2022, https://www.asgi.it/asilo-e-protezione-internazionale/sistema-di-monitoraggio-aics-in-libia/

[7] Recurso al Tribunal Supremo del Acuerdo del Consejo de Ministros (19 junio de 2019) de aplicación del Fondo de Contingencia y concesión de suplemento de crédito al Ministerio del Interior, 20 July 2020, https://www.access-info.org/wp-content/uploads/RESUMEN-RECURSO-TS-FONDO-DE-CONTINGENCIA.pdf

[8] ‘Las relaciones internacionales y la seguridad pública como límites del derecho de acceso a la información pública: la opaca ayuda a Marruecos de 32 millones de euros’, 11 November 2021, https://miguelangelblanes.com/2021/01/11/las-relaciones-internacionales-y-la-seguridad-publica-como-limites-del-derecho-de-acceso-a-la-informacion-publica-la-opaca-ayuda-a-marruecos-de-32-millones-de-euros/ ; Resolución 565/2020, Consejo de Transparencia y Buen Gobierno,  https://elconfidencialdigital.opennemas.com/media/elconfidencialdigital/files/2021/01/21/R-0565-2020.pdf

[9] Nikolaj Nielsen, ‘Frontex spent €94,000 on a dinner in Warsaw’, EUobserver, 18 January 2021, https://euobserver.com/eu-political/150625

[10] Nikolaj Nielsen, ‘Frontex chief took €8,500 private flight to Brussels meeting’, EUobserver, 3 February 2022, https://euobserver.com/migration/154274

[11] EU General Court reduces the legal costs claimed by Frontex against transparency activists, AccessInfo Europe, 19 April 2021, https://www.access-info.org/2021-04-19/eu-court-legal-costs-frontex-activists/

[12] Letter calling for transparency of Frontex, 6 March 2021, https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/news/2020/mar/eu-frontex-transparency-case-joint-letter-costs-6-3-20.pdf

[13] ‘EU General Court reduces the legal costs claimed by Frontex against transparency activists’, AccessInfo Europe, 19 April 2021, https://www.access-info.org/2021-04-19/eu-court-legal-costs-frontex-activists/

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jane Kilpatrick, ‘Spain/Morocco: “Migration control, not rescue”: squeezing search and rescue in the Mediterranean’, Statewatch, September 2019, https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/analyses/no-345-sar-spain-morocco.pdf

[16] Over 2,000 people die on migration routes to Spain this year, Statewatch, 13 July 2021, https://www.statewatch.org/news/2021/july/over-2-000-people-die-on-migration-routes-to-spain-so-far-this-year/

[17] Samuel Allan, ‘The Canary cage: the making of deportation islands on Spain’s Atlantic border’, Statewatch, 7 June 2021, https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2021/the-canary-cage-the-making-of-deportation-islands-on-spain-s-atlantic-border/

[18] ‘UK-France joint action plan on illegal migration across the Channel’, 24 January 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-france-joint-action-plan-on-illegal-migration-across-the-channel; ‘Managing Migration Flows in Calais: Joint Ministerial Declaration on UK/French co‐operation', 20 August 2015, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/455162/Joint_declaration_20_August_2015.pdf ; ‘UK‐France Summit 2010 Declaration on Immigration', 2 November 2010, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/257276/declaration.pdf

[19] Home Office, ‘Priti Patel and new French Interior Minister agree action on Channel crossings’, 12 July 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/priti-patel-and-new-french-interior-minister-agree-action-on-channel-crossings

[20] ‘Joint UK/French ministerial declaration on Calais’, 20 August 2015, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/joint-ukfrench-ministerial-declaration-on-calais

[21] Yasha Macanico, ‘As the fiction of a Libyan search and rescue zone begins to crumble, EU states use the coronavirus pandemic to declare themselves unsafe’, Statewatch, May 2020, https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2020/mediterranean-as-the-fiction-of-a-libyan-search-and-rescue-zone-begins-to-crumble-eu-states-use-the-coronavirus-pandemic-to-declare-themselves-unsafe/

[22] European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, ‘Controlling the Message: Challenges for Independent Reporting in Greece’, 28 March 2022, https://www.ecpmf.eu/controlling-the-message-challenges-for-independent-reporting-in-greece/ 

[23] Yash Maccanico, ‘Viewpoint: Greece-Finland: Ambassador’s condemnation of an academic study on the hotspots shows the link between migration policy and authoritarianism’, Statewatch, 2 June 2021, https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2020/viewpoint-greece-finland-ambassador-s-condemnation-of-an-academic-study-on-the-hotspots-shows-the-link-between-migration-policy-and-authoritarianism/

[24] Josoor International Solidarity, ‘Criminalisation of Solidarity’, https://www.josoor.net

[25] Serena Chiodo, ‘Confine italo-francese, 14 ore di fermo per due freelance’, Il manifesto, 10 April, 2021

[26] Javier Baulauz: “Si a la 'ley mordaza' le basta con el testimonio de un policía, ¿la Justicia dónde está?", Público, 11 June 2022, https://www.publico.es/sociedad/javier-bauluz-ley-mordaza-le-basta-testimonio-policia-justicia.html

[27] BBC News, ‘Napier barracks: Journalist arrest raised in Commons’, 4 February 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-55940650 ; Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, ‘An inspection of the use of contingency asylum accommodation – key findings from site visits to Penally Camp and Napier Barracks’, 8 March 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/an-inspection-of-the-use-of-contingency-asylum-accommodation-key-findings-from-site-visits-to-penally-camp-and-napier-barracks

[28] Matt Busby, ‘Arrest of photographer at Kent protest raises press freedom fears’, The Guardian, 30 January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/jan/30/arrest-of-photographer-at-kent-protest-raises-press-freedom-fears

[29] Gabriela Sánchez, ‘La activista Helena Maleno, tras su expulsión de Marruecos: "Tengo miedo del Estado español porque no me ha protegido’, 21 April 2021, El Diario, https://www.eldiario.es/desalambre/activista-helena-maleno-expulsion-marruecos-miedo-espanol-no-protegido_1_7798157.html

[30] Andrea Palladino, ‘Intercettazioni e indagini contro i giornalisti che scrivono di Libia e migranti’, Domani, 2 April 2021, https://www.editorialedomani.it/fatti/inchiesta-contro-ong-intercettati-giornalisti-porsia-scavo-mannocchi-v3quj6pm ; Alessandro Puglia, ‘Giornalisti intercettati dalla Procura di Trapani, la sconfitta dello Stato di diritto’, Vita, 3 April 2021, http://www.vita.it/it/article/2021/04/03/giornalisti-intercettati-dalla-procura-di-trapani-la-sconfitta-dello-s/158898/

[31] ‘Seguito dell'indagine conoscitiva sul contributo dei militari italiani al controllo dei flussi migratori nel Mediterraneo e l'impatto delle attività delle organizzazioni non governative: audizione del Procuratore della Repubblica di Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro’, Radio Radicale, 3 May 2017, https://www.radioradicale.it/scheda/507689/commissione-difesa-del-senato-della-repubblica

[32] FNSI, ‘Inchiesta di Trapani sulle Ong, Fnsi: «Fare chiarezza sulla vicenda dei giornalisti intercettati»’, 2 April 2021,  https://www.fnsi.it/inchiesta-di-trapani-sulle-ong-fnsi-fare-chiarezza-sulla-vicenda-dei-giornalisti-intercettati 

[33] Radio Radicale, ‘Giovanna Reanda, Speciale sull’inchiesta della Procura di Trapani sulle ONG e sulle intercettazioni ai giornalisti, with Nello Scavo, Armando Spataro, Sergio Scandura and Andrea Palladino’, 3 April 2021, https://www.radioradicale.it/scheda/633382/speciale-sullinchiesta-della-procura-di-trapani-sulle-ong-e-sulle-intercettazioni-ai 

[34] ‘Il “Grande Fratello” all’ascolto di avvocati e giornalisti, Foro degli avvocati di Messina’, June 2021, https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=919897722139158

[35] Zach Campbell, Lorenzo D’Agostino, ‘Friends of the Traffickers. Italy’s Anti-Mafia Directorate and the “Dirty Campaign” to Criminalize Migration’, The Intercept, 30 April 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/04/30/italy-anti-mafia-migrant-rescue-smuggling/

[36] Il “Grande Fratello” all’ascolto di avvocati e giornalisti, Foro degli avvocati di Messina, June 2021, https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=919897722139158

[37] Luciano Bertozzi, ‘Il tribunale penale internazionale incrimina i capi dei trafficanti di uomini libici tra essi forse Bidja addestrato e finanziato dall’Italia’, Africa Express, 30 November 2022, https://www.africa-express.info/2022/11/30/il-tribunale-penale-internazionale-incrimina-i-capi-dei-trafficanti-di-uomini-libici-tra-essi-forse-bidja-addestrato-e-finanziato-dallitalia/

[38] ‘Statements. Greece: Ongoing crackdown on migrants’ rights defenders as pushbacks of people on the move continue’, OMCT, 28 January 2021, https://www.omct.org/en/resources/statements/greece-ongoing-crackdown-on-migrants-rights-defenders-as-pushbacks-of-people-on-the-move-continue

[39] Aegean Boat Report press statement, 8 December 2020, https://aegeanboatreport.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/press-statment.pdf

[40] Natalie Gruber, ‘They want to silence us’, Josoor, 31 March 2021, https://www.josoor.net/post/they-want-to-silence-us

[41] José Bautista and Ana Rojas, ‘Gil Arias, ex director ejecutivo de la Agencia Europea de Fronteras: “Frontex es cómplice de la vulneración de los derechos de los migrantes”’, Pùblico, 20 June 2021, https://www.publico.es/entrevistas/gil-arias-frontex-vulneracion-derechos-migrantes.html

[42] Anti-migration cooperation between the EU, Italy and Libya: some truths, Statewatch, 19 March 2020, https://www.statewatch.org/analyses/2020/anti-migration-cooperation-between-the-eu-italy-and-libya-some-truths/ ; The Commission and Italy tie themselves up in knots over Libya, Statewatch, June 2019, https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/analyses/no-344-Commission-and-Italy-tie-themselves-up-in-knots-over-libya.pdf ; Giustizia Insieme, Y. Maccanico, L’attaco frontale ai diritti dei migranti e al diritto del mare non è casuale, March 2020, https://www.giustiziainsieme.it/it/il-magistrato-3/964-l-attacco-frontale-ai-diritti-dei-migranti-e-al-diritto-del-mare-non-e-casuale

[43] ‘EU: European Commission technical mission to Libya: exporting Fortress Europe’, Statewatch Bulletin, vol. 15 no. 2, March-April 2005, https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/news/2006/jul/libya.pdf; ‘EU/Libya: Full steam ahead, without pausing to think’, Statewatch, June 2005, https://www.statewatch.org/news/2005/june/eu-libya-full-steam-ahead-without-pausing-to-think/

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