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This activist fights for migrants' lives in murky international waters


Many African migrants enter Europe through Spain, either by sea or through its border with Morocco. And in 2022, that migration was down, due in part to cooperation between the two countries. Their governments may see that as a success, but 2022 will also be remembered as the year when 23 migrants died trying to cross into the Spanish territory of Melilla from Morocco back on June 24. For pro-immigration activists like Helena Maleno, what happened that day represents just one more injustice in a battle she has been fighting for decades. NPR's Miguel Macias had the chance to talk with her, and he brings us this story.

MIGUEL MACIAS, BYLINE: The relationship between Morocco and Spain is complicated. And few people know more about this complex reality than Helena Maleno.

(Speaking Spanish).

HELENA MALENO: (Speaking Spanish).

MACIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

I meet Helena on a Saturday in October at Atocha, the main train station in Madrid. She's a bit of a legend. Every person I talk to about migration from Africa to Europe tells me, you have to try to interview Helena Maleno - try because Helena is hard to find, hard to pin down, hard to get any time from her. But when she finally gives us an interview, she doesn't look at her phone for an hour. And she doesn't mince words, especially when she talks about border control.

MALENO: (Through interpreter) This is business. This is not about racism. Racism hides a big business. It is the business of border wars. The main weapons companies in the Western world have invested in stopping the movement of people.

MACIAS: And defending the right of people to move is, in a way, Helena's life mission. Her organization helps migrants in transit.

MALENO: (Through interpreter) We have two numbers. One is to assist families who are missing a relative, and the second number is an alert system, 24 hours a day, to receive calls from migrants who are stranded at sea so we know, when a vessel is rescued or not rescued, if there are any dead migrants, what their names are.

MACIAS: It's a job that never ends, a responsibility that is difficult to come to terms with.

MALENO: (Through interpreter) Every day, we save lives. Actually, every day, lives are saved. It's not us saving lives. People fight for their lives and save their own lives.

MACIAS: Helena Maleno pays a high price for her work. In Spain, the far-right political party, Vox, has used an anti-immigration platform to make political gains, attacking migrants and their allies. Helena Maleno has suffered directly the consequences of this rise of anti-immigration speech.

MALENO: (Through interpreter) My Twitter feed is full of messages from the far right calling for me to be raped, calling for my assassination. I have received pictures of bullets or guns saying that the bullet was for me or for my family.

MACIAS: But Helena is used to threats and harassment. In 2018, Moroccan authorities accused her of human smuggling. And Helena found herself in the middle of an international effort to prosecute her involving Spain, Morocco and Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

MALENO: (Through interpreter) The dossier that criminalized me and that called for me to be sentenced to life in prison just because I work to save migrants' boats that are sinking in the middle of the sea was produced by the Spanish police in collaboration with Frontex. And since judges refused to prosecute me in Spain, they sent the dossier to Morocco for them to do the dirty work.

MACIAS: The accusation was eventually dropped, but Helena continued to receive threats. And eventually, in January 2021, Moroccan authorities blocked her return to the country after a trip. She had to leave her home and family behind and return to Spain.

MALENO: (Through interpreter) All of this because when someone is about to drown at sea, we call the rescue services and ask them to save them. And we had announced that many times. Rescue services from Spain and Morocco and other countries let migrants die at sea. Last year, our organization counted 4,404 people who died while trying to access Spain.

MACIAS: Spain and Morocco have two land borders at the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta. This is where the European Union meets the African continent. And to stop migrants from crossing the borders into those two Spanish territories, the Spain and the European Union give Morocco a lot of money.

JOSE ANTONIO BAUTISTA: We don't know what they do with that money. What we know is that it's consolidating the dictatorship ruling Morocco.

MACIAS: Jose Antonio Bautista is a journalist who specializes in migration.

BAUTISTA: Morocco has discovered that using migrants as a tool to put pressure on the democratic governments in Europe works.

MACIAS: And sometimes Morocco's methods of controlling migration have deadly consequences.


MACIAS: On June 24, 2022, at least 23 migrants died trying to cross the complex of fences that separates Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Many more are still missing. It was not the first time things went wrong at the border of Morocco with Spain, but this date has become a turning point for activists and many ordinary citizens.

BAUTISTA: After what happened in Melilla, many journalists and experts and analysts were expecting changes from the Spanish government. Somehow, people was expecting - was thinking, OK, the Spanish government is going to say, dear friends of Morocco, you have to stop using migrants as a tool. You have to stop using people to get more money from the European Union. This dynamic has to stop. But it didn't happen.

MACIAS: Bautista led an investigation by porCausa, a nonprofit that studies migration and policy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Moroccan officers entered Spain through this corridor and started forcing people back into Morocco.

MACIAS: Using video footage, they were able to break down, moment by moment, what happened on June 24. And some of their findings contradicted directly the version of events given by Moroccan and Spanish authorities.

BAUTISTA: For example, we know now that people - some people died, not only on the Moroccan side, but also in the Spanish side. We also know that Moroccan forces came into Spain and took bodies. And we've been able to prove that at least one of those bodies was a young boy who died.

MACIAS: The Spanish minister of Interior is under increasing pressure. No matter how many times they try to deflect questions, more evidence demonstrates that some of the early statements about what happened on June 24 were simply not true. And yet, none of the officials involved in the episode have resigned as of this airing, and the Spanish central government has not admitted any wrongdoing.

MALENO: (Through interpreter) We continue to feel a lot of pain, a lot of rage, because we need to know the truth about what is happening at our borders to continue with the reparation process, the justice process and not repeat the same realities.

MACIAS: Helena Maleno has seen it all at this point. For her, working to help these migrants who risked their lives trying to cross the borders of Europe is not an option. It's a way of life, a philosophy.

MALENO: (Through interpreter) Look. I am convinced that you have to make a commitment to improve the place where you are living, your society. Otherwise, we live under a system that is devouring everything. Of course we are tired. Of course we cry. But there is a lot of solidarity among us.

MACIAS: I'm sitting there with her on that bench outside of the train station in Madrid and wonder if that is what living with a purpose looks like. Miguel Macias, NPR News.


MANU CHAO: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.