The European Court of Human Rights has rejected a legal bid made by a local NGO for it to require Malta and Italy to rescue people in distress at sea.

In a brief statement on Friday, the NGO said that it was not surprised by the ruling but nevertheless disappointed by it.

Repubblika had filed the request with the ECHR for an interim measure on Wednesday, as a boat carrying more than 50 people drifted in Maltese waters.

Interim measures are issued by the ECHR when lives are in imminent danger. Through them, the court can order a country to do - or not do - something until it can investigate further. 

Just hours after Repubblika had filed its request at the Strasbourg-based court, the legal bid became dated, as tragedy unfolded at sea. 

The International Organization for Migration said that five people aboard the boat were found dead and another seven were missing. Some 47 survivors aboard that vessel were picked up by a commercial vessel and returned to Libya, where they were locked up in detention cells in Tripoli.

Under international law, states have a legal obligation to come to the rescue of people in distress at sea. International law also forbids states from returning people to a country where they face persecution.

Malta and Italy have both said that their ports are closed to all migrants at sea, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The decision has left migrants crossing the Mediterranean stranded and forced some NGOs to cancel their sea rescue operations.

Interim measures are only granted in clearly defined conditions and must be linked to a potential breach of human rights. The vast majority are refused, according to ECHR statistics.

The last interim measure linked to Malta and its migration policy dates back to 2013, when the Strasbourg-based court ordered the recently-elected Muscat government to reverse its decision to force migrants back to Libya. 

A Repubblika spokesperson said the current government seemed to be doing the same thing as back then, only it had now “outsourced the same act to a Libyan vessel”.

The ECHR decision did not change the government’s moral or legal responsibilities, they said.

“Our government should live up to its responsibilities and act within the law at all times without a court having to intervene to stop it. And we as civil society have the duty to insist the law is applied and all lives are protected.”

Repubblika is also pushing for criminal action against prime minister Robert Abela and his cabinet of ministers, arguing that their decision to refuse to rescue people at sea is a dereliction of their duties and responsibilities.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us