A researcher, journalist and mother, Helena Maleno stands up for the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe by sea and land. 

These men, women and children, many of whom travel north to Morocco from Sub-Saharan Africa are among 600 million “people on the move,” a term used to describe those who are living away from their place of home. 

She first witnessed the mistreatment of “people on the move” in 2000 in her hometown of El Ejido, Spain, when violence against poor, migrant fruit pickers made international news. To learn more about the plight of these migrant laborers, she traveled to Tangiers, Morocco, with her son to make a documentary about the mistreatment being meted out to migrants on both sides of the border as they sought better lives in Europe. 

Helena remained in Morocco, where she founded an organization that safeguards the rights of people from across Africa and the Middle East who seek to reach Europe by way of the Moroccan-Spanish border.    Her organization, Caminando Fronteras, offers a lifeline to migrants and their families who often have no one to turn to for help. The organization is best known for alerting maritime authorities to migrants packed onto boats at risk of drowning in the Spanish South border. 

As a result, they have saved countless lives. In the tragic but far too regular occurrence of migrants drowning at sea, Helena and her organization help identify the disappeared and locate the bodies so they can inform their families, or sometimes even send their remains back home so their loved ones can give them a proper burial. The organization also documents human rights abuses against migrants on both sides of the borders, such as beatings by authorities, and helps migrants take legal action against these and other violations of their rights.

Helena has received death threats for her tireless work protecting the rights of migrants. Spanish authorities have delegitimized and stigmatized her while Moroccan authorities have tried to stifle her efforts, accusing her of promoting irregular immigration and human trafficking. Judges in Morocco recently decided to dropped all the charges against her in March 2019.

 In a report on defenders of “people on the move,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, found that Helena’s case is all too common. 

Based on conversations and input from defenders of “people on the move”, such as Helena Maleno, he determined that they are facing unprecedented threats and restrictions to their work, as well as pervasive disqualification and criminalization. He called on States to address these concerns. 

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