Amnesty International accuses Malta of illegal tactics against refugees

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

International human rights organisation, Amnesty International, has accused the government of resorting to dangerous and illegal measures for dealing with the arrivals of refugees and migrants at sea.

In its latest report titled Waves of impunity: Malta’s human rights violations Europe’s responsibilities in the Central Mediterranean, Amnesty International shows how the government tactics are exposing countless people to “appalling suffering and risking their lives”.

The report comes in the context of growing despair as 27 asylum seekers who were rescued by a Danish-flagged cargo ship in an operation coordinated by the Maltese authorities remain without a safe port after four weeks.

International organisations call on government to end stand off
ICS, UNHCR and IOM call on states to end crisis onboard Maersk Etienne

The human rights NGO noted the change in government’s approach to arrival in 2020, accusing it of taking unlawful and sometimes unprecedented measures to avoid assisting refugees and migrants.

“This escalation of tactics included arranging unlawful pushbacks to Libya, diverting boats towards Italy rather than rescuing people in distress, illegally detaining hundreds of people on ill-equipped ferries off Malta’s waters, and signing a new agreement with Libya to prevent people from reaching Malta,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

“Malta is stooping to ever more despicable and illegal tactics to shirk their responsibilities to people in need. Shamefully, the EU and Italy have normalized cooperation with Libya on border control, but sending people back to danger in Libya is anything but normal,” said Elisa De Pieri, Regional Researcher at Amnesty International.

“EU member states must stop assisting in the return of people to a country where they face unspeakable horrors.”

Magistrate Mifsud leads inquiry into the death of the death of 12 asylum seekers
Homicide complaint thrown out in pushback inquiry report

Amnesty International observed that some of the actions taken by the Maltese authorities may have involved criminal acts being committed. The acts may have resulted in avoidable deaths, prolonged arbitrary detention, and illegal returns to war-torn Libya.

It also took note of an unprecedented move by Malta to close its ports to migrant landings and claiming lack of resources to ensure salvage at sea. This was done to discourage people from seeking safety and a decent life in Europe, the NGO stated.

From the beginning of January to 27 August 2020 7,256 people were ‘pulled back’ to Libya by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard, which was often alerted of the presence of boats at sea by airplanes engaged in Frontex and other EU operations, Amnesty International reported.

The Easter Monday pushback

In its statement, Amnesty International said that the case of Easter Monday pushback illustrates the desperate lengths to which the Maltese authorities are willing to go to prevent people from arriving.

Authorities have no information about a distress case
No information about some 50 asylum seekers in Maltese SAR

A group of 51 people which included seven women and three children were returned to Tripoli after being rescued in the region of which Malta is responsible by the commercial fishing boat Dar al Salam 1, on 15 April.

The Maltese government contracted the boat and tasked it with returning the asylum seekers to Libya where they were handed over to Libyan authorities.

Five people were dead when the vessel reached Libya, and the survivors reported that a further seven people were missing at sea. Survivors reported that those on board were not given medical assistance, Amnesty International said.

Amnesty International noted that the magisterial inquiry into the case left many questions unanswered including how the 12 people died and how 51 were returned to Libya despite it being illegal to return people to Libya. The international organisation also noted that during the course of the magisterial inquiry, the magistrate did not summon any of the survivors to testify and neither probe the chain of responsibility which led to the commercial fishing vessel being contracted by the government to conduct an illegal pushback.

Other pushbacks have occurred in 2019 and 2020, according to NGO Alarm Phone. These pushbacks have not been investigated.

Amnesty International also took note of the relationship between Libya and Italy, saying that they have worked closely together, with Italy providing support to the Libyan maritime authorities by providing vessels, training and assistance in the establishment of a Libyan SAR region to facilitate pullbacks by the Libyan coastguard.

Asylum seekers from the Easter Monday pushback file judicial protest
13 migrants file a judicial protest against Govt and AFM

“The European Commission must turn the page when they launch the New Pact on Migration and Asylum after the summer and ensure European border control and European migration policies uphold the rights of refugees and migrants,” said Elisa De Pieri.

“The horrors faced by people returned to Libya must caution European leaders against cooperating with countries which don’t respect human rights. By continuing to empower abusers and to hide their heads in the sand when violations are committed, those EU leaders share responsibility for them.”