Human Rights Photographer Charged as Part of Migrant Extortion Scheme

Migrant boat on beach, Europe

A human rights photographer who once worked for the Red Cross has been arrested and charged for allegedly being part of a gang that exploited migrants.

As The Telegraph reports, Francisco Clemente, 27, had established himself on social media for his photos of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, primarily to Spain.

Known in the media as a champion of migrants who embark on an exceptionally dangerous crossing in hopes of achieving a better life, Clemente appears to have been part of what makes the journey so dangerous.

According to an investigation by Spain’s Guardia Civil police, Clemente has been charged with his role in extorting families who wanted to know what happened to their loved ones who attempted the sea crossing.

“When corpses were brought ashore, the gang would gain access to morgues, identify the deceased via a network of contacts in North Africa, and then charge inflated sums for the paperwork required to repatriate a body,” The Telegraph writes.

Allegedly, the gang would charge up to €10,000, or nearly $11,000, to send the corpse of a person who died during migration back home to Africa. The gang reportedly worked alongside a corrupt funeral parlor as part of this scheme.

The wide-ranging investigation has wrapped up 14 people, including Clemente, and uncovered corruption at a state forensic medical institute.

“When they became aware of a shipwreck, they contacted families to ask for personal information about the missing persons to carry out a false search for these people, assist the families in filing a report, manage DNA collections for the identification of the body and provide translation services,” the Guardia Civil said in a statement.

Spanish police allege that the network of criminals used fake social media profiles to contact the families of the deceased to offer — sell — them information about their missing loved ones.

Charges include crimes of fraud, revealing confidential information, violating the deceased, falsifying official documents, and bribery.

According to the United Nations, last year was the deadliest year for migrants at sea in Europe since 2016, with more than 3,000 dead. So far this year, the situation is even worse.

According to The Telegraph, Clemente’s role, built upon publicizing the plight of migrants, was to deliver crucial departure and route information to co-conspirators. Clemente’s work documenting the migrant crisis began when he worked with the Red Cross in 2018. Two years later, he established his own blog, Héroes del Mar on social media. His work amassed more than 150,000 followers.

A witness told Spanish newspaper El País that Clemente captured photos of dead migrants, including identifying marks and tattoos, and sent them to relatives. He allegedly also convinced people to pay the exorbitant fees that the gang demanded.

As of three days ago, Clemente was the only person in the network to have spoken to authorities.

The dangers of migrating by boat from Africa to Europe represent a significant human rights crisis, and the notion that a photographer who purported to help people was part of a criminal gang that preys on migrants and their families is horrific.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.