"Helping people in need at sea should not be punishable"

Linda Cottone is a lawyer for the UN and specialises in human trafficking and law of the sea.  She visited the UAB Faculty of Law to give a seminar. At the UN institute she focuses on migration and two crimes: human trafficking in general and immigration trafficking.


-Migration should not be considered a problem for our society, but a chance to transform and enrich us.

Linda Cottone obtained a bacholor's degree in law in Milan and did her Erasmus at the UAB; later she continued with a migration and rights of the sea project in Geneve. She was aiming to become a public prosecutor, but human rights and the urgent need for help of migrant people crossed her path. Today she lives in Algeria and works for the UNICRI, a UN institute. Thanks to her preofession she has had the opportunity to live in different parts of Africa, including Niger and Djibouti.
-Tell me about your professional trajectory.
-While I was studying for public prosecutor I was doing an apprenticeship in Madrid, at ACNUR, and my whole view of what my work should be changed, so I decided to specialise in the protection of refugees and their rights. Migration as a phenomenon caught my attention. It is as if they live two lives, when they are people with rights! I myself have lived in many different countries for work reasons, but that does not mean I have to lose my rights as a person.
-Did you see an urgent need to help?
-Yes, totally, and especially I saw that there were very few people in law working in this field. When speaking about immigrants at that time, almost 10 years ago, it was a very concerning issue, since many thousands of immigrants were reaching the shores of Albania. Very little was known on the subject. I began to investigate on how to offer protection and discover what their needs could be, taking into account that these people had left their families and homes behind because of war.
-Is this currently a huge problem for Europe?

-Immigration is not a problem! What must be done is to prepare protection systems to help immigrants form part of our society. Immigration has transformed society, the challenge now is how to guarantee their integration, but this cannot and should not be a problem. We must find the way for them to contribute to the enrichment of their local communities and at the same time contribute to their home countries (by sending money or financing new economic activities). I don't think it is correct to call immigration a problem; on the contrary, I see it as an enrichment.
-What do you do at UNICRI?
-This United Nations institution works on the fight against crime and in strengthening the justice system. Personally, I work with immigration and two types of crime: human trafficking in general and the trafficking of immigrants in specific, focusing on criminal organisations connected to terrorist organisations.
-And how can you fight against this from the UN?
-By trying to learn more about them, finding ways for the affected countries (North Africa and the Sahel region) to dialogue, and finding effective, lasting and sustainable solutions. The Sahel is scenario to different types of trafficking, there are many different problems all mixed up. We have terrorist attacks for example. The Sahel is the frontier point where we find all of this. There is Boko Aram on the border between Niger and Nigeria, a place which is not safe at the moment, and then there is Mali. This lack of security makes it easier for criminal activities to appear.
-And that leads to human trafficking?
-Yes. When we speak of trafficking we refer to all types of exploitations (prostitution, extraction of organs, slavery, forced labour, etc.).
-And the role of the UN is to make legal security exist where there is now none?
-In the fight against human trafficking we are trying to reinforce four aspects included in the Palermo Protocols: prevention, protection, indictment and partnership. The UN works with countries in order to increase training and takes care of guaranteeing their protection and legal, medical, etc. assistance.
-What are the main problems in carrying this out?
-On the one hand, the lack of information on behalf of the victims, because they do not know their rights and are not aware of the fact that they are being abused. On the other hand, we see that the governments do not know which measures to take to prevent the trafficking of humans. And they must guarantee that the perpetrators pay for these crimes.
-Is there any particular case you remember well?
-I like to think about our successful cases. For example, when we accompany victims of sex trafficking so that they can return to a normal life. The women of Nigeria, for example, are tricked into going to Europe and then forced to become prostitutes. After we intervene and offer medical assistance, it is very satisfying to see how they can begin to work in their home country. I think about some of the women I have helped, and how they dreamed about opening a hair salon. When we were able to send them back to Nigeria and they can open their small shop, you can see how happy they are after everything that has happened to them. That is very satisfactory. I am still in contact with many of them, we send each other photos, whatsapps, etc.

-What are your opinions on the "Open Arms" rescue vessel?
-It is not the first case. There was a case years before which is considered to the a precedent. The NGO Cap Amamur was convicted for rescuing immigrants at sea.

-As a lawyer and human rights defender how do you feel about that?
-The law provides forms of protection. And the correct use of the adequate terminology can help to avoid confusions with situations which are not connected. If they were rescuing people in need I see no reason to convict them for that.

-The law should therefore be interpreted differently?
-International law should always be interpreted in a way that guarantees that human rights prevail. In this case, the lives of people were in danger and that is what should have prevailed. These people are vulnerable and need protection.

-Even if what they do goes against the law?
-Article 97 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that if a person is in danger at sea, that person must be rescued. There are rules of international law which cannot be broken. In these cases, utmost importance is given to the dignity of a human being; first and foremost are the human rights of any person. And international law stipulates this.


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