Helena Maleno

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Helena Maleno - Caminando Fronteras.jpg

Helena Maleno Garzón (born 1 August 1970) is a Spanish human rights defender, journalist, researcher, documentalist and writer. She is specialist in the migration and trafficking of human beings. She is the founder of the Caminando Fronteras collective. She lives in Morocco, where she denounces the violations of Human Rights in the southern Spanish border and Works on supporting and empowerment of the sub-Saharan migrant communities during the migratory process. She uses her social networks daily to warn of the drifting vessels and the jumps over the fence that occur, coordinating the rescue and ensuring the guarantee of fundamental rights.

She is currently being persecuted by the UCRIF of the Spanish National Police[1], even facing a life sentence for defending the right to life of migrants.[2]


She was born in El Ejido. There, she began her contact with the migrants as a labor advisor for the Laborers of the Field Syndicate. In 2001 she moved to Morocco with her son where she began to build friendships and partnerships with organized migrant communities. It develops research on border externalization, deportations and asylum for organizations such as Sos Racismo, Intermón Oxfam or the Jesuit Refugee Service. She was a delegate in Morocco of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR) between 2007 and 2009.

She works for Women's Link Worldwide in different reports where she implements the gender perspective to analyze the migration process. Helena has conducted research in Nigeria,[3] Colombia,[4] Germany, Denmark, France, Morocco,[5] and Spain,[6][7] where she compares and exposes the problem of trafficking as an international and industrial framework of contemporary slavery. She also does this for the Ombudsman of Spain as one of the few external consultants of the institution, being the author of the National Monographic Report on Trafficking in Human Beings.[8]

She was a consultant for the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) for the United Nations Rapporteur on the right to international solidarity.

She provides training for the General Council of the Judiciary, the Progressist Union of Prosecutors, state and municipal public administrations and social organizations of national and international scope.

She writes in Spanish information media for Eldiario.es and Público. In 2017 she was elected as one of the 10 African women of the year by the newspaper El País.

In the field of art, she participates in exhibitions such as Geography and Mobility (Vienna), Utopia (London) and the Political Art Biennial of Cairo. She is the director of several video-reports, editor of the audiovisual piece Frontera Sur,[9] production assistant of the CNN and BBC documentary Living with ilegals[10] and screenwriter of "Children on the road"[11] for Save The Children. In 2015, her collective, Caminando Fronteras, premiered the documentary Tarajal: Transforming pain into justice[12][13] of which she is a scriptwriter and interviewer. The footage tells the events of the controversial tragedy on the Spanish beach of Tarajal through the perspective of the families of the victims, which are organized in an unprecedented process in sub-Saharan Africa to demand responsibility from European states and achieve justice.

Desert accident[edit]

On 1 October 2005, the migrant communities reported to Helena massive detentions in Moroccan cities. Hundreds of people were deported and abandoned in the desert, where lots of them ended up dying. By telephone, the defendant reported the situation. Journalist Luis de Vega wrote in ABC, "Talk to me. Tell me things to keep me going," that is what they told her in desperate calls "24 hours a day", so as the journalist said.

On 8 October Helena left with a commission that she had organised to take 500 rations of food from Tangier for abandoned migrants and at the same time, to document the tragedy. For the next few days, they followed the convoys with dozens of men, pregnant women and migrant children that were forced to displace themselves to the desert. "Valued information that left from the van to the entire world", the newspaper ABC told.

Nevertheless, after travelling more than 6.000 kilometres by car, an accident occurred with another convoy. Those worse injured were Helena and her colleague Francisco.They were treated at a hospital in El Aaiún and then moved to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.[14] She needed several months in wheelchair to recover from her wounds.

Threats and extortion[edit]

Her work of criticizing and denouncing migration policies between the European Union and African governments has been met with threats and extortion since its inception. For years, the activist has been suffering from calls, persecutions and aggressions that aim to put an end to the work she does through her organization and that has endangered her own life. One of the most serious episodes was the one suffered in the neighborhood of Boukhalef[15] (Tangier) in 2014. Organized groups of armed Moroccan men began a raid against the migrants with the connivance of the police: they attacked with violence, burned the houses with their belongings and they sexually assaulted women. Maleno was warned by the communities to move from the area and report what happened. After documenting it, the violent groups managed to reach her, assaulting her whilst shouting slurs like "Spanish whore, the immigrants have to go to the water". A taxi driver managed to aid her escape.[16] Given the impassivity of the police, it is suspected that they are behind these organized groups. The researcher had brought to light earlier political agreements on borders between the governments of Morocco and Spain.

In August 2017, she received a photo of a gun loaded with the message "I suggest silence or you will die, you are bothering the authorities". This came after the Unified Union of Police (SUP) posted sexist threads on twitter in which the rape of Maleno was encouraged. Days later the activist criticized the performance of the state security forces on the Ceuta border. The attacks on social networks, the abusive calls and finally the death threat, led Caminando Fronteras to promote the #DefenderAQuienDefiende campaign (to defend to whom defends). The communique of the collective made of up to 500 national and international organizations and entities (among which are Amnesty International, Médicos del Mundo, the Andalusian Ombudsman or political parties).[17] Next, the World Organization Against Torture and the International Federation for Humans Rights issued a communiqué demanding that the states resolve political responsibilities and guarantee the safety of the activist.[18] The campaign aimed to make visible not only the case of Maleno but also of all human rights defenders whose activity is constrained by political interests and economic of the European States.

Criminalization and international support[edit]

On 5 December 2017, Helena Maleno was summoned to appear before the Moroccan judicial system in the Appeals Court. She was accused of "people trafficking, and being in favoring of illegal immigration". The charges brought against her, mean she can face up to life imprisonment, just for making calls to rescue services to alert them that people attempting to cross the sea were in danger.[19]

The judge confirmed that the accusations have been based in four criminal reports prepared by the UCRIF (unity of the Spanish Police in charge of border control). One investigation that began in 2012 without any judicial control, violates the fundamental rights of the Defendant. This was brought to light by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders of the United Nations in their respective reports on the case.

The political persecution has been responded to with an international campaign of solidarity under the slogan #DefendiendoAMaleno (Defending Maleno). More than a thousand organisations and 200 personalities including Luis García Montero, Almudena Grandes, Javier Bardem and Joaquín Sabina among others, endorsed the manifesto in support of Helena.[20]

The case had originally been filed by the Spanish National Court (Audiencia Nacional), but because no crime had been committed, the criminal reports were sent to Morocco. In support of the accused, it was reported that 56,000 emails were sent to the Spanish Home Office and the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in less than 36 hours. These emails demanded that the case be thrown out by the Moroccan court.

After three declarations in the Moroccan court, administrative problems and months of restrictions on her freedom, Helena Maleno continues doing her part, while she waits for a judicial sentence.[21]


  • Human Rights Prize 2014 of the Progressive Union of Prosecutors.
  • Human Rights Prize 2015 of the General Council of the Spanish Advocacy.
  • Distinction for the Defense of the Rights of Migrants Women of the Andalusian Institute of Women (2016)
  • Distinction for the Defense of the Rights of Women Victims of Trafficking of Amaranta Foundation (2017).
  • Special Mention of the Dignity Prizes 2017 of the Granada's City Hall.
  • Fraternity Award 2017 of Mundo Negro.
  • Puñetas Periféricas Award 2018 of the Association of Legal Communicators.
  • Gernika's Prize for Peace and Reconciliation 2018 at the 81º anniversary of the tragedy.
  • Valors Award 2018 of the Council of Catalan Advocacy.
  • Etnosur Prize 2018 of the Etnosur Music Festival.
  • Séan McBride Peace Prize 2018 of International Peace Bureau.
  • Abba Melaku Award 2018 of the Solidarity Initiatives Center Ángel Olarán.


  1. ^ Desalambre. "El Gobierno confirma el envío a Marruecos del informe policial que dio origen a la causa contra Helena Maleno". eldiario.es (in Spanish). Retrieved 2019-03-27.
  2. ^ Badcock, James (2018-01-30). "The 'heroine' facing jail for people smuggling". Retrieved 2019-03-27.
  3. ^ "«La trata de mujeres y niñas nigerianas: esclavitud entre fronteras y prejuicios»" (PDF).
  4. ^ "«La trata y la explotación en Colombia: No se quiere ver, no se puede hablar»".
  5. ^ "«Mujeres migrantes en la clandestinidad: el aborto en Marruecos»" (PDF).
  6. ^ "«Mujeres en los Centros de Internamiento: Realidades entre rejas»" (PDF).
  7. ^ "«Almería: la historia que nadie cuenta»" (PDF).
  8. ^ "«La Trata de Seres Humanos en España: Víctimas Invisibles.» - Defensor del Pueblo de España" (PDF).
  9. ^ "«Frontera Sur»".
  10. ^ ""Living with illegals"".
  11. ^ ""Dibujos de luz"".
  12. ^ ""Tarajal: Transformar el dolor en justicia" - Teaser".
  13. ^ ""Tarajal: Transformar el dolor en justicia"".
  14. ^ "ABC (Madrid) - 16/10/2005, p. 55 - ABC.es Hemeroteca". hemeroteca.abc.es. Retrieved 2019-01-22.
  15. ^ "«Marroquíes contra subsaharianos en Tánger, a golpe de machete». El Confidencial".
  16. ^ "«Agreden a la activista española Helena Maleno en Tánger»".
  17. ^ ""Manifiesto: #DefenderAQuienDefiende" - Walking Borders".
  18. ^ "«Comunicado OMCT y FIDH en apoyo a Helena Maleno»".
  19. ^ "La persona que 'más vidas ha salvado en el Estrecho' se enfrenta, en el peor de los escenarios, a una cadena perpetua". www.publico.es. Retrieved 2019-01-22.
  20. ^ Press, Europa (2017-12-26). "Más de 200 personalidades apoyan a la activista Helena Maleno, que declara en Marruecos por ayudar a migrantes". www.europapress.es. Retrieved 2019-01-22.
  21. ^ Fronteras. "Diez meses de angustia en Marruecos: la activista Helena Maleno sigue esperando la decisión del juez". eldiario.es (in Spanish). Retrieved 2019-01-22.