The situation of more than 400 persons kept on private ships just outside Malta’s territorial waters is unsustainable and requires immediate action, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said on Thursday.

Since Malta closed its ports in response to the COVID-19 crisis, persons rescued at sea are no longer disembarked on land, but transferred to ships off Malta’s coast.

Malta has charted four Captain Morgan vessels to hold migrants outside territorial waters, with the government insisting that the country’s ports are closed to all arrivals. 

Asked on Monday what would happen to the migrants currently held off Malta, the prime minister said he hoped there would be a solution by the time ports were reopened. Ports are due to reopen on July 1.

The government said those on the ships should remain there until such time that other member states commit to relocating them.

In April, the commissioner stressed that, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, safe and prompt disembarkation of persons rescued at sea should continue.

In early May, the Commissioner called upon the Maltese authorities not to put at risk the rights of rescued persons because of disagreements between member states about disembarkation, and to give priority to humanitarian considerations.

“I am concerned that, since then, additional ships have been rented and that the number of people kept on them, without a clear prospect of prompt disembarkation, has substantially increased.”

Mijatović reiterates that coastal member states at the forefront of receiving refugees, asylum seekers and migrants should be able to rely on support from other states.

Accordingly, the creation of structural solutions at the European level remained crucial. “Discussions about a fair and equitable system for responsibility-sharing have been continuing for too long. Once again, I call on member states to promptly decide on such a system in a true spirit of solidarity. However, I do not believe that keeping survivors at sea, as is happening now, is the right way to make much-needed changes happen”, she added.

Welcoming the evacuation of some vulnerable individuals, Mijatović noted that many more had been kept at sea for prolonged periods, some for more than a month, without a clear solution in sight.

“Experience shows that when rescued persons are kept without a possibility for disembarkation for prolonged periods, their health tends to deteriorate rapidly,” she said, adding this would lead to an emergency situation triggering obligations for Malta, which has full control over the ships where people were now held, to quickly evacuate them.

Making safe disembarkation on land dependent on other member states’ commitments to relocate those brought to Malta, or waiting until emergencies made evacuation inevitable, only prolonged the agony of those on board and ended up putting their physical and mental health at risk, the commissioner said.

“As an immediate measure, I urge Malta to grant monitoring bodies and agencies providing assistance and protection access to those rescued,” she said.

This must be followed by urgent and concrete actions to ensure the current situation is ended as soon as possible and its repetition avoided.

Mijatović also expressed concern that the confinement of those rescued on the ships, as well as the lack of remedies against this measure and its indefinite duration might not be compliant with the right to liberty of those on board, as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I also urge Malta to ensure that the decision to position the ships just outside territorial waters does not result in those on board being deprived of the opportunity to request international protection”, she added.

Mijatović reiterated that, any challenges notwithstanding, it remained paramount that no action by Council of Europe states resulted, either directly or indirectly, in the return of migrants at sea to places where they faced serious human rights violations.

In this respect, she again highlighted her position that any cooperation with the Libyan authorities that would result in such returns should be suspended.

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