The Malta office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees said today that pushing back irregular migrants to their point of departure was not an option in view of the situation they faced in Libya.

In a statement, it noted that in less than 24 hours, four overcrowded boats were intercepted by Italy and Malta and almost 800 people were rescued. A total of 290 were brought to Malta.

A pushback policy was momentarily introduced some years ago following a controversial agreement between Italy and the Gaddafi regime, lambasted by humanitarian organisations.

"Those in need of international protection will now have the opportunity to have their asylum claims assessed. UNHCR Malta commends all entities and individuals involved in this effort," the office said.

"The situation of asylum seekers in Libya remains an issue of grave concern. Recent reports describe a context of lawlessness and impunity, where foreign nationals from sub-Saharan Africa are at constant risk of exploitation, arrest and indefinite detention.

In this situation it is evident that forced return or pushback of asylum seekers to Libya is not an option, as this would constitute a breach of international law, Jon Hoisaeter, UNHCR representative in Malta said.

UNHCR said a combination of solutions was required as a long-term solution to the current situation.

They included local integration, resettlement/relocation and return for those who were not in need of international protection.

So far in 2013, around 600 asylum seekers have arrived in Malta, while almost 200 beneficiaries of protection have been assisted to settle in the US and other countries.

"The number of arrivals in Malta in 2013 is lower when compared with the same period last year. Nevertheless, while the country has managed to establish an effective asylum procedure, the irregular arrival of asylum seekers continues to present significant challenges for Malta," the UNHCR said.

"UNHCR intends to continue to work closely with the authorities and other partners to improve the situation both as regards the immediate reception arrangements and the achievement of long term solutions. We stand ready to support further steps by the new Government to address and manage the situation in a comprehensive manner."

It noted that in an opinion piece in Times of Malta on June 20, the UNHCR Malta representative suggested that Malta’s calls for additional support were more likely to succeed on the basis of a clear definition of Malta’s own capacity and planned contribution for the coming years. ‘Malta is too small’ is not likely to go very far as a stand-alone argument,” he said.

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