Malta’s failure to rescue migrants
Although overall crossings of the central Mediterranean have plummeted in recent years, arrivals by sea to Malta have risen over the same time – with 1,445 recorded in 2018, 3,406 in 2019 and 2,161 as of 31 August 2020. The resources and efforts necessary to ensure reception, access to protection, and protection from Covid-19 are considerable for a small country.
In 2020, Malta has failed to protect the human rights of refugees and migrants at sea, avoiding assisting refugees and migrants by taking unlawful measures. The agreement made with Libya will make it more difficult for people who flee from Libya to reach the search and rescue region (SAR) of Malta, whereas Libya has inhumane circumstances for migrants, such as maltreatment and abuse of migrants.
Tactics to arrange pushbacks to Libya
Diverting boats with people in distress towards Italy
Illegally detained people on unequipped ferries (approximately 425 people between April and June 2020)
Signing a new agreement with Libya to prevent people reaching from Malta.
In order to ensure the adequate reception of people disembarked, Malta should be able to rely on the support of other EU member states. EU member states need to adequately share responsibility for assisting people rescued in the central Mediterranean, including in order to facilitate the identification of places of safety where people rescued in the Libyan SAR region should be disembarked. Malta has been delayed in attending distress calls. This has exposed people at the risk of drowning and people who were rescued at sea were denied leaving their ships and were unlawfully kept for weeks on board of private vessels.
The Maltese government is willing to take measures to prevent people arriving on their shores. The case of the ‘Easter Monday pushback’ illustrates this, on 15 April 2020, a group of 51 people were unlawfully returned to Tripoli after being rescued in Malta’s search and rescue region. By ordering this pushback, the Maltese authorities exposed refugees and migrants to further risks to their life. The absence of such a mechanism does not relieve Malta of the responsibility to :
indicate a place of safety for the disembarkation of people rescued under its coordination;
cooperate with other states towards the prompt identification of a place of safety to disembark people rescued in the Libyan SAR region;
provide adequate assistance to people disembarked in Malta, including access to international protection in line with international standards.
Malta is a member of various international and regional organizations, including the United Nations, the EU and the Council of Europe, and has ratified a number of international conventions regarding the protection of human rights. As such, it must uphold all relevant international laws and standards, including those pertaining to the protection of the right to life, and must ensure that its interpretation of the law of the sea is consistent with its other obligations under international human rights and refugee law.
The Easter Monday Pushback, April 2020
What happened ?
A pushback by Malta towards Libya, between 10 and 15 April 2020.
On 15 April 2020 a group of 51 people were unlawfully returned to Tripoli after having been rescued in Malta’s SAR region by the fishing boat Dar Al Salam 1, a Libyan-flagged vessel routinely docked in Malta.
They were part of a group of reportedly 63 who left Libya on 9 April.
12 people reportedly died.
The NGO Alarm Phone was in contact with the people on this boat since 10 April, when they became in distress at sea. Alarm Phone repeatedly alerted maritime authorities in Italy, Libya and Malta to the situation of this boat.
No rescue operation was initiated until the night between 13 and 14 April, when Italy and Malta sent out air reconnaissance flights.
Adequate reparations to survivors and the families of the victims.
Malta should publicly acknowledge the unlawfulness of the policies and practices which led to the human rights violations.
Malta should withdraw from the agreement with Libya, any form of cooperation with Libya must focus on protecting the human rights of refugees and migrants.
The Maltese NGO Repubblika filed a report requesting that the Police Commissioner investigate the Prime Minister and the Commander of the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) for endangering the lives of the people on the boat by delaying their rescue and for failing to prevent the deaths of the 12 who reportedly died without assistance.
A magisterial inquiry was opened. At the end of May, the magistrate dismissed the accusations against the Prime Minister and AFM Commander. The report left many unanswered questions regarding the circumstances of the transfer of 51 people to Libya and the reported deaths of 12 people.
The magistrate did not wait to hear the testimonies of the 51 people transferred to Libya before closing the inquiry.
The magistrate also did not probe the chain of responsibility to contract the Dar El Salam 1 and instruct it to transfer people out of the Maltese SAR region and onto Libya, nor why AFM vessels were not involved in the operation.
No reference to the information provided by the former government official who was asked to use his contacts in Libya to facilitate the operation; nor does it detail whether information exchanged between Italian and Maltese authorities was sought.
He did not look into the responsibilities for the failure of the authorities over at least two days to initiate a rescue operation notwithstanding having been informed by Frontex on 10 April of the coordinates of boats in distress, including the one eventually pushed back on 15 April.
The Prime Minister noted that all the testimonies and documents considered relevant by the magistrate were collected. Repubblika has urged Malta’s Attorney General to reject the findings of the magistrate’s report and reopen the investigation.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO MALTA
Ensure that people in distress in Malta’s SAR region are promptly assisted and disembarked in Malta without delay, including by withdrawing the April 2020 statement regarding the closure of Maltese ports to disembarkation of refugees and migrants.
Ensure that adequate SAR resources are available where they might be needed on the high seas along the routes of refugees and migrants.
Ensure that people rescued at sea and disembarked in Malta are housed in open centres, in adequate conditions, and that they have access to asylum, in line with international standards.
Establish an independent, public inquiry into violations of the rights of refugees and migrants at sea in the Maltese SAR region, with terms of reference and members able to command the trust of civil society.
With regard to the Easter Monday pushback and reported deaths of 12 people in April 2020; to the reported pushbacks in March 2020 and October 2019; to the failure to rescue and re-direction of a refugees and migrants’ boat to Italy in April 2020; and to the arbitrary detention at sea of approximately 425 people between April and June 2020 :
Ensure that thorough, independent and impartial criminal investigations are conducted and that, where there is admissible evidence available, suspects are brought to justice in a fair trial for charges that reflect the gravity of the human rights violations involved;
Provide adequate reparations to survivors and the families of the victims in line with international standards;
Publicly acknowledge the unlawfulness of the policies and practices which led to these human rights violations.