Libya ‘safe port’? Possible says government; no say MEPs

While the Maltese government is asking the EU to give Libya a substantial aid package to possibly make it a safe port for migrants, MEPs from across the political spectrum have insisted that the EU should shop channelling funds to Libya to manage immigration and train its coastguard since the violation of the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers have continued unabated.

The position of the Maltese government was made clear in a letter (reproduced here in full) which Minister for Foreign Affairs Evarist Bartolo and the Minister for Home Affairs Byron Camilleri sent to European Union Foreign Affairs counterpart Josep Borrell.

Bartolo and Camilleri wrote: “…we need to boost the empowerment of the Libyan Coast Guard in enhancing the control of its borders, as well as concretely ensuring that Libya presents a safe port for the disembarkation of migrants”. has written to the EU Commission for a reaction to the letter by the Maltese government.

No war-torn country can be a ‘safe country’

In a background note on the concept of ‘safe country’, the UNHCR explained “Simply put, the term “safe country” has been applied, in the refugee context, to countries which are determined either as being non-refugee-producing countries or as being countries in which refugees can enjoy asylum without any danger”.

This backgrounder makes it very clear that the aspect of safety is to be applied to a country, not to any part of a country, such as a port as the government of Malta seems to be suggesting.

Indeed, the US Institute for Peace remarked “At the subnational level, many local conflicts reflect long-standing feuds between various factions, tribes, and ethnic groups. In the shadow of the ongoing conflict around Tripoli, the prospects for a political solution are dimmed by the country’s deep political and tribal divides.”

Tripoli is also Libya’s main port and the place where the migrants involved in the Pasquetta Tragedy were forcibly returned against their will.

Politicizing a humanitarian process

In spite of this dire assessment, which is shared in international circles, the Maltese government called on the EU to assist Libya through a substantial financial package.

“The humanitarian aid from the European Union must be imminent and substantial – today and not tomorrow – and we are proposing an EU package of at least 100 million euros of food, aid, medical supplies and equipment,” wrote the government of Malta.

The rationale behind this request is aimed at staving off what the Maltese government sees as a humanitarian crisis. However, again, the backgrounder by the UNHCR warns against this whole process of rendering ‘normal’ a country which is far from safe. The note says “However, promoting “normalization” in countries through the medium of the asylum procedure is inappropriate, in UNHCR’s view; it serves to politicize an essentially humanitarian process”.

Indeed, the UNHCR underscores that “…“burden-sharing” arrangements allowing for readmission and determination of status elsewhere are reasonable, provided they always ensure the protection of refugees and solutions to their problems”.

MEPs adamant: No money for unsafe Libya

On the 27th April, in a meeting of the Civil Liberties Committee, MEPs from across the political spectrum insisted that the EU should shop channelling funds to Libya to manage immigration and train its coastguard since the violation of the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers has continued unabated.

Committee MEPs held a debate with representatives of the European Commission, Frontex, the UN High Commission for Refugees, the Council of Europe and various NGOs, and a majority insisted that Libya could not be deemed a safe country for the disembarkation of people rescued at sea.

During the debate, speakers acknowledged the challenges faced by Malta and Italy as the front-line countries receiving the bulk of those fleeing Libya. So far, 3,277 people arrived in Italy by sea, and 1,135 arrived in Malta. This latter figure is in stark contrast with the figure mentioned by Bartolo and Camilleri in the letter to the EU. “Taking the last twelve months alone as a snapshot,” wrote Bartolo and Camilleri, “Malta has disembarked close to 4,500 irregular immigrants”. This figure quoted by Bartolo and Camilleri is substantially the same as the figure which the MEPs quoted as having arrived in Italy and Malta together.

The COVID-19 argument

Bartolo, in his letter to Borrell, raises the issue of COVID-19.

“Malta is facing a considerable threat from COVID-19,” wrote the Minister for Foreign Affairs, adding that “The COVID-19 crisis is also leaving its mark in Libya”.

The last disembarkation of irregular migrants from Libya in Malta occurred at the height of the pandemic in the first week of April. On the 9th April, 66 migrants landed n Malta. None of them tested positive for coronavirus. The immigrants who did test positive for COVID-19 were the ones who were in contact with the Maltese community.

Meanwhile, 500 healthcare professionals, including 260 medical doctors, have signed a letter calling for Prime Minister Abela to reconsider his stance on sea rescue and disembarkation. They said that it is contradictory to allow people to die in the name of public health.

The updated list of signatories was sent to Prime Minister Abela, and copied to the Ministers of Health and Home Affairs and to the Superintendent of Public Health.

The signatories said that the news that Malta had closed its borders to immigrants in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue Zone came as a shock to them. They asked whether Malta’s Covid-19 response must come at the expense of human rights.