Malta’s intensified efforts to stop asylum seekers from disembarking on the island during the pandemic have featured in a human rights report that is claiming civil society work conditions across the EU deteriorated in 2020.

The European Union Fundamental Rights Agency report, published on Wednesday, also notes that despite tabling legislative proposals to address SLAPP, there was little progress on the issue in Malta.

FRA is calling on EU policymakers to foster a more conducive working environment for civil societies, as organisations face increased threats, attacks, funding cuts and disproportionate restrictions.

Fifty-seven per cent of organisations across the EU told FRA that their work conditions deteriorated in 2020, while 40% received verbal threats online.

One out of every three reported smear campaigns against their organisation and 10% experienced legal harassment.

According to the agency, organisations working with refugees and migrants were among the most affected.

Last year saw continued criminalisation of and legal action against civil society activity, notably in search and rescue (SAR) at sea and humanitarian assistance for those in need while on the move, FRA said.

“In Malta, measures to prevent the entry of SAR vessels led by CSOs intensified in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, when SAR vessels were routinely refused disembarkation and were blocked off the Maltese coasts,” the report Protecting the civic space in the EU says.

“A positive development has been reported in Italy, where a new law governing the activities of CSO vessels carrying out SAR operations limits the possibility of preventing disembarkation in Italian ports for solid reasons of public safety or the violation of anti-trafficking legislation. This law also no longer allows confiscation of a vessel in the event of non-compliance with official refusal to disembark,” FRA added.

Earlier this year, migrant emergency hotline Alarm Phone told Times of Malta that since May 2020, the NGO had observed fewer rescues carried out by the Armed Forces of Malta and more migrants pushed back to Libya.

And by May of 2021, drastically fewer asylum seekers had reached Malta compared to the same period in 2020, while sea arrivals in Italy shot up and boat interceptions by the Libyan coastguard almost doubled.

Last year, Malta was involved in a controversial operation to return migrants to war-torn Libya. On Easter Sunday of 2020, a boat picked up migrants who were in Maltese waters and returned them to the north African country after being commissioned by Maltese authorities to provide "help".

Over the past months, several people whom NGOs said were at risk of drowning at sea, or were in dire conditions, were left stranded off Malta for days.

In July, a report published in Brussels-based online newspaper EU Observer alleged that Maltese authorities had ignored repeated requests to help coordinate the sea rescue of a group of people including a disabled child. 

Little progress on SLAPP

The FRA report also notes an increased use of SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) across member states.

It said that in some countries, civil society organisations claimed that these lawsuits sometimes rely on overly strict interpretation of EU law, such as the General Data Protection Regulation.

"Legislative proposals to address the issue of SLAPPs have been tabled in Italy and Malta, with little progress to date," it added.

Last week, Prime Minister Robert Abela told EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen during a visit to Malta that, in the coming days, the government will unveil anti-SLAPP legislation to protect journalists from ruinous libel suits in foreign jurisdictions.  

More data

- Nearly a third reported difficulties in exercising their rights to freedom of assembly

- A quarter had their freedom of expression hindered 

- Over half (60%) have difficulties in finding funding for their work

- 46% lack adequate information about getting involved in decision making and public consultations

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