Updated 5pm with AFM response

Malta has been accused of violating international law by sending a boatload of asylum seekers back to Egypt.

The September 26 incident saw coordinators at Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre instruct a merchant vessel to take 23 people it had rescued at sea to Port Said, Egypt.

Egypt lacks a national legal framework for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers and is classified as ‘not free’ by democracy watchdog Freedom House, which gave the country just six out of 40 points for political rights and 12 out of 60 points for civil liberties.

Under the 1951 Geneva Convention, which Malta is a signatory to, countries cannot return people to places where their life or freedom is threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social status.

That rule, defined legally as the principle of “non-refoulement”, ensures that asylum seekers are not pushed back into countries or territories that they are seeking to flee.

In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, four NGOs accused Malta of violating that international law on at least one instance three weeks ago.

Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Sea-Watch said Malta should be punished for breaking the law.

“As organisations engaging in SAR activities at sea, we denounce the forcible transfer of these 23 people to Egypt and call for consequences to Malta’s blatant violations of maritime and international law,” they said.

When they were rescued, Malta was 144 nautical miles away while Italy was 159 nautical miles away. The vessel had to travel 760 nautical miles to disembark them in Egypt, the NGOs said.

“European rescue coordination centres must fulfil their legal responsibilities and ensure the immediate rescue of people in distress at sea, with subsequent disembarkation in a place of safety in Europe.”

The asylum seekers were in Malta’s search and rescue zone when they first issued a distress call on September 22. One day later, Maltese authorities acknowledged that they were “coordinating the case” but declined to provide further information.

Malta instructed a merchant vessel in the area, the Shimanami Queen, to collect the asylum seekers on September 26.

Egyptian authorities then confirmed to sea rescue NGO Sea-Watch that it was waiting for the Shimanami Queen to reach Port Said and bring the rescued people back to Egypt.

“Malta took the decision,” Cairo’s rescue centre told Sea-Watch.

When asked to respond to the accusations that the operation broke international law, an Armed Forces of Malta spokesperson replied by saying Malta's Rescue Coordination Centre "coordinates rescues at sea in accordance with the applicable conventions."

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