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ITALY: Migrant rights defender NGO accused of encouraging illegal immigration

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Update (03/05/22): Andrea Costa, President of the Italian NGO Baobab Experience, has been acquitted of the charge of aiding and abetting illegal immigration: according to the first degree court “the fact does not exist”.

In any case, Baobab Experience defined the allegation against Costa as an “irreparable damage” for the migrants rights defender NGO.

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Update (27/04/22): The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor expressed support to Andrea Costa and NGO Baobab Experience, tweeting that the trial against Costa “should never have been pursued in the first place” and that “criminalising solidarity with migrants must be put to an end”.

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Press release published by Baobab Experience on 18/04/2022 (unofficial translation in English by the European Civic Forum)

IN TWO WEEKS, THE FIRST DEGREE SENTENCE FOR THE CHARGE OF AIDING AND ABETTING ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION WILL BE HANDED DOWN TO ANDREA COSTA, PRESIDENT OF BAOBAB EXPERIENCE

***Press conference by Baobab Experience: Thursday 21 April, 3.30 pm at Associazione della Stampa Estera – Sala Conferenze – Via dell’Umiltà 83, Roma ***

They tried to accuse Baobab Experience of criminal association.

They have attributed the case to the Anti-Mafia District Directorate. They listened to our conversations for months, violating our privacy, our intimacy, at the expense of Italian taxpayers, because interception costs a lot.

After months of investigations they found nothing and the accusation imploded on itself.

Continuing to listen, the investigators intercept a telephone conversation in which Andrea Costa talks about 9 young migrants who, in the aftermath of the eviction of the Baobab Experience humanitarian aid camp, wish to reach the Red Cross camp in Ventimiglia.

The year is 2016.

On 30 September, five days before the interception, the informal camp where Baobab volunteers were providing assistance was dismantled by the Prefecture and about 300 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, were left without their makeshift beds and the humanitarian aid brought by the solidarity workers in Via Cupa.

The fury of those days was strong. Those who bring support are turned away and the watchword is “disband” and to disband the community.

It was impossible even to put up a plastic sheet to protect a pregnant woman: the police intervened with three trucks and five cars to remove the precarious protection from the rain of those days.

It’s the year 2016: this is the time in which the NGOs that rescue migrants in the MediterraneanSea are defined as “friends of human traffickers” and “taxis of the sea”, and of the declarations of the Prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, regarding investigations underway on search and rescue organisations at sea, later revealed to be inconsistent in the near silence of the press.

It’s 2016 and Sudan is in the throes of a protracted internal conflict, characterised by repeated and serial violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Government forces, led by dictator Al-Bashir, carry out serious attacks against civilians, including mass executions, rape, use of chemical weapons and destruction of private property.

In 2016, Sudan was the fifth largest country of origin for refugees in the world, more than 90% of whom were granted international protection.

The year is 2016 and Chad is an authoritarian state where the resurgence of violent extremism by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram is compounded by the “response” of the security forces: politically justified kidnappings, arbitrary arrests and detention in often inhuman conditions, severe restriction of freedom of speech, assembly and expression.

8 Sudanese boys and one Chadian boy, fleeing violence in their respective countries, evicted, humiliated and abandoned in Rome by a hostile administration, after learning that the Red Cross camp in the capital is overcrowded, seek protection elsewhere.

On that occasion, as in thousands of other similar circumstances, Baobab Experience volunteers offered their support to identify the cheapest train or bus ticket, to help buy tickets for those who do not have the financial resources to pay for a ticket, to prepare kits with the essentials to cope with the journey, including a packed lunch and hygiene products.

For this conduct, Andrea Costa is equated by the prosecution with the many human traffickers who act with impunity in Italian stations and who charge dearly for their tickets, even with their lives, selling false documents at the price of an illusion and speculating on the fragility of people abandoned to themselves.

If the humanitarian vocation and actions of the President of Baobab Experience, Andrea Costa, represent a crime, each one of us is a criminal.

If Andrea is guilty, we are all guilty.

If Andrea is guilty, it means that the assistance to migrants that for seven years women and men, lawyers and students, doctors and teachers, retired people and researchers of Baobab Experience have offered without any financial gain is seen as the same as the actions of those who unduly make money on the skin of migrants.

In years of harassment against NGOs, no human trafficker has been brought to justice. Rather, it was discovered that the chiefs of the European military operation were aware that the Libyan Coast Guard, trained and educated with their contribution, was involved in the trafficking of migrants: a despicable situation, now in the public domain.

While Italy and the European Union are accused of rejections by proxy at the European Court of Human Rights, Italy continues to harass the wrong enemies.

Council Directive 2002/90/EC – known as the Facilitation Directive – provides a common definition of the concept of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, and stipulates that Member States may introduce a humanitarian clause, which protects humanitarian assistance workers and volunteers from the risk of being put on trial.

Obviously, Italy was careful not to do so.

Even today, in our legal system, no difference has been introduced between human traffickers and solidarity workers: the doubt arises that the aim is not to combat organised crime, abuse, deception and trafficking in human beings. On the contrary, it is increasingly clear that the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, as regulated in Italy, is intended to demonise migration itself and to prevent men, women and children from escaping conflict, violence and hunger, by throwing mud at voluntary associations and by mortifying and discouraging humanitarian aid.

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The NGO Baobab Experience has been filling the institutional void in the assistance of migrants and refugees in Rome for many years: the actions of Baobab volunteers have prevented more than 60.000 migrants to be left alone in the Italian capital’s streets between 2015 and 2018. Read here our interview with the experienced Baobab volunteer Valerio Bevacqua in January 2018. Watch below our interview with Baobab President Andrea Costa in October 2018.