Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Gozo Bishop Mario Grech have backed a statement by NGOs expressing 'grave concern' over the government's decision to close Malta's ports to NGO rescue ships.

Archbishop Scicluna expressed his support in a tweet and Mgr Grech endorsed the statement in a Facebook post.

In a legalistically-worded statement, the government on Thursday said that "Malta needs to ascertain that operations being conducted by entities using its port services and operating within the area of Maltese responsibility, are in accordance to national and international rules".

Two NGO ships, the Lifeline and the Sea Watch III are currently detained in Grand Harbour.

Read: Stop criminalising rescuers, causing mass grave, Maltese government is told

The NGOs said the consequences of the government's decision "are potentially fatal, as the vessels will no longer be able to continue saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

"Although supposedly aimed at ensuring respect for the law, this action directly undermines the protection of human life at Europe’s borders, making them even more dangerous for refugees and asylum seekers," the NGOs said. 

Claus-Peter Reisch, the captain of the charity ship MV Lifeline, leaves the court.Claus-Peter Reisch, the captain of the charity ship MV Lifeline, leaves the court.

They observed that thousands of lives were saved by NGOs in the Mediterranean between 2015 and 2018.

"One of the inevitable consequences of the decision to close Malta’s ports to these vessels will be that more people will lose their lives attempting to reach a place of safety. This especially since EU states do not seem to have any plans to increase their search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean, but
intend to rely instead on the Libyan coastguard to conduct rescues.

The deaths of 100 migrants in the seas off Libya on Friday, after a Spanish NGO vessel was told that the Libyan coastguard was taking care of the rescue, highlights the deadly consequences of refusing to collaborate with NGOs and limiting their capacity to operate effectively, they said.

"Moreover, seen in the light of recent government statements stressing the need to allow the Libyan coastguard to operate without obstruction, the actions being taken against NGOs conducting search and rescue look like little more than a thinly veiled attempt to block refugees and migrants from leaving Libya.

"It is impossible not to question the morality and humanity of a decision that will effectively trap people in an abusive situation, where their safety is anything but guaranteed. It is a well-documented fact that migrants in Libya routinely experience severe violations of their rights including rape, slavery, torture, ill-treatment, extortion and detention in miserable conditions. Not only, it is completely impossible for them to apply for protection there."

The NGOs said that while it was important to secure national borders, "this can not, and should never be, at the cost of the life or safety of others, especially vulnerable people seeking refuge".

They called on the government of Malta to urgently reconsider its decision and to allow NGO rescue vessels to continue to operate from Malta ports. 

The statement was signed by the aditus Foundation, Eritrean Community, Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants, Graffiti, IAFR, Integra Foundation, JRS Malta, Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Malta, Kopin, Libico, Malta Emigrants’ Commission, Migrant Women Association Malta, PFC, PHROM, Solidarity with Migrants Group, SOS Malta and Spark 15.

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