Don't deny stranded migrants human rights, CoE commissioner tells Abela

'Malta facing unprecedented migratory pressures,' Abela replies

Mon, May 11th 2020, 11:10 Last updated on 11/5/20

Times of Malta

Times of Malta file photo.

An international human rights body has asked the government to meet its human rights obligations towards migrants. 

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Robert Abela, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović urged the authorities to respond effectively and urgently to any situation of distress at sea “of which they become aware”. 

She also urged Malta to investigate and address all credible allegations of delay or non-response to any situation. 

The government in April was accused of secretly pushing back migrants to Libya using private fishing vessels. Separately, an inquiry is under way into claims the AFM “sabotaged” a migrant boat. The claims have been vehemently denied. 

The Mae Yemenja, owned by Maltese sea captain Carmelo Grech, brought the migrants to Libya. Photo: Manuel Delia

Noting that Libya cannot be considered a place of safety, the Commissioner calls on Malta’s government to refrain from any action that would result in the return to and disembarkation in Libya of people rescued or intercepted at sea. 

The Commissioner said Malta should stop issuing instructions to private vessels to disembark rescued persons in Libya, and not handing over responsibility to the Libyan Coast Guard or related entities when the foreseeable consequence of this would be disembarkation in Libya. 

"I also urge your government to ensure full accountability for situations in which action by Maltese authorities has led, directly or indirectly, to returns of persons at sea to Libya," she said.

Mijatović said the COVID-19 pandemic cannot negate clear obligations to save lives at sea and to ensure prompt and safe disembarkation.

Malta has stopped disembarking migrants since it closed its ports, citing coronvirus. However, a small group were taken to the island last week. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Malta has charted two Captain Morgan vessels to hold migrants outside territorial waters, as the government insists the country’s ports are closed to all arrivals. 

The Commissioner stresses that she will continue to call for more solidarity from Council of Europe member states with those countries, like Malta, which are on the frontline of migration movements to Europe, and for better co-operation to ensure the effective preservation of life and the protection of the human rights of those at sea, including through responsibility sharing for adequate search and rescue capacity and the timely disembarkation of those rescued.

In response to the letter, the prime minister assured that Malta "has always been, and shall remain committed to saving lives at sea". 

One of two Captain Morgan vessels that are currently housing rescued migrants offshore. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Abela highlighted the problems faced by the island as a “frontline state” facing unprecedented migratory pressure. 

The prime minister said the measures to put in place to fight the COVID-19 spread, including the quarantining of all migrants at the Hal Far centre, posed additional limitations on Malta’s capabilities to take in more migrants. 

“In these circumstances, whilst I appreciate the points and support raised in your letter, Malta needs concrete support and action, particularly by way of relocation of migrants”, Abela said. 

"I eagerly await your feedback on an effective concrete plan of action to ensure proper burden-sharing by all Council of Europe member states. Malta believes in a comprehensive approach towards providing concrete solutions to the complexity and challenges of migration at sea," he replied. 

Weighing in on the exchange, rule of law NGO Repubblika slammed the government's "embarassing" diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world. 

"The government has not only tried to argue that Tripoli harbour, shelled regularly by enemy artillery, is safer than Malta’s and that Libya’s hellish detention centres where human rights are regularly flouter is a safer destination than Malta because of Covid-19, but it is now also arguing that the European Court of Human Rights agrees with it".