Updated 7.40pm, adds UNHCR statement

All 56 migrants rescued out at sea earlier this week have been safely transferred to a Captain Morgan tourist boat, a government spokesperson has confirmed. 

The migrants will be housed on the boat outside territorial waters amid demands from the government for more help from the EU. 

Marine Traffic, a popular vessel tracking website, says the Europa II’s tracker is “out of range”. 

A spokesperson for Alarm Phone, an NGO that tracks migrant crossings around the Mediterranean, said the Maltese authorities were refusing to share any information with it about the rescue. 

No information has been forthcoming from the government about why the migrants are being kept outside of territorial waters, and whether this is meant as a temporary COVID-19 measure or if it will continue indefinitely until other EU countries offer to relocate them. 

Prime Minister Robert Abela faced criticism in April over the decision to close Malta’s ports, with the Opposition insisting that vulnerable people like children and pregnant women should be rescued. 

It has since been exposed how the government sanctioned an operation that saw private fishing vessels picking up migrants to ferry them back to Libya. 

Former OPM official Neville Gafa' has claimed in court that he helped arrange the operation.

Abela has refuted accusations that the government pushed back the migrants, instead insisting it was a rescue mission.  

UNHCR calls for greater coordination, solidarity, responsibility

Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called for greater coordination, solidarity and responsibility sharing in view of the increased movements of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. 

It said in a statement that despite the extremely difficult circumstances faced by many countries at present due to COVID-19, the protection of lives and fundamental human rights had to remain at the forefront of decision-making.

Rescue at sea was a humanitarian imperative and an obligation under international law. 

Legitimate public health concerns could be addressed through quarantine, health checks, and other measures. However, delayed rescue or failure to disembark boats in distress put lives in danger.

A safe port for disembarkation should be provided without delay, together with a prompt agreement on how to share responsibility among states for hosting people once they reached safety on dry land.

Due to the ongoing conflict in Libya, as well as the routine detention of disembarked migrants and asylum-seekers who often faced overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and other human rights concerns, the UNHCR reiterated that no one should be returned to Libya after being rescued at sea.

The EU Mediterranean coastal states bore major responsibility for sea arrivals.

Those which regularly allowed disembarkation had to be able to count on the predictable solidarity of others through an effective and timely relocation mechanism, as well as support for reception facilities.

Reception capacity constraints were also the main reason challenging the disembarkation of refugees and migrants who rescued at sea after harrowing journeys across the Mediterranean. 

In this context, the UNHCR urged stronger intra-EU solidarity with the EU Mediterranean coastal states receiving refugees and migrants and called on other member states to show greater responsibility-sharing in the form of relocation support. Collective efforts on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea were essential to save lives at sea.

Beyond the current COVID-19 crisis, UNHCR called for renewed efforts to reduce loss of life at sea, including increased search and rescue capacity and a predictable disembarkation mechanism. 

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