Malta can’t shelf human rights obligations in emergency scenarios – NGOs

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Non-governmental organisations working in the human rights field reminded the government that the country cannot entirely shelf human rights obligations in an emergency scenario after the ports were declared “unsafe”.

In a joint press statement on Friday, the NGOs expressed their shock and concern about closing off the ports for those who are still attempting the dangerous crossing through the Mediterranean sea. On Thursday a group of 70 individuals was rescued off the Maltese coast after they were drifting off in the Maltese Search and Rescue Zone. Following the rescue, the government made it clear that no more migrants will be allowed in, even if rescued by humanitarian NGOs.

The move comes after the Italian government declared its own ports “unsafe” due to the coronavirus pandemic. Italy will not authorise the landing of migrant rescue boats until the end of the emergency.

The NGOs warned that by declaring unsafe ports, people would be either stranded out at sea for days, possibly weeks or returned to Libya.

“It is unacceptable for Malta to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to shelve its human rights obligations and endanger the lives of men, women and children,” fifteen NGOs said.

The signatories said that while they fully appreciated the enormous challenges which the country was facing in securing public health, it must be understood that Malta must adopt general measures that would otherwise be deemed unlawful due to their limitation of our fundamental human rights.

“Under these circumstances, it is also our collective duty to comply with these measures and cooperate with the authorities despite limitations imposed on, for example our rights to privacy and free movement.”

“Yet we are also keen to underline that emergency scenarios do not grant Malta the authority to entirely shelve its human rights obligations. There are minimum standards that must always be met, a threshold that no State is ever permitted cross.”

The NGOs said that they feared that Malta was exploiting the public health emergency to deprive migrants of their human dignity, adopting measures veiled as public health protection but having the effect of sacrificing migrants for Malta’s safety.  

According to international law, Malta under no circumstances shall be allowed to return persons to a territory where their lives and safety would be at risk. Therefore Malta is not allowed to abandon people at sea or exonerate the state from its responsibility to ensure that rescued persons are not returned to Libya.

The NGOs working in the migration field pointed out that the way in which migrants were being detained was in breach of their fundamental human rights reminding that the Maltese courts had deemed the practice illegal.

“Together with being manifestly illegal, the detention of hundreds in confined spaces with hardly any access to running water, fresh air, soap and privacy is a public health risk of enormous proportions. Alternatives do exist, yet it is not clear if the authorities have explored them in any way. Malta is responsible for the safety of all detained persons, yet again the authorities are excluding migrants from their understanding of ‘public health’. Again, this approach is unlawful and despicable.”

The NGOs expressed their concern on the treatment migrants were receiving highlighting that they should not be sacrificed for the nation’s wellbeing.

“National emergencies should be overcome with solidarity and compassion. We therefore urge Malta to ensure the rescue and disembarkation of persons within its responsibility and to revise the situation of hundreds of detained persons.”

The signatories were Aditus Foundation, African Media Association Malta, The Critical Institute, Cross Culture International Foundation, Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants, Integra Foundation, Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta), KOPIN, Malta Emigrants’ Commission, Migrant Women Association Malta, People for Change Foundation, SOS Malta and Spark15.

“We will not guarantee rescue”

In an unprecedented move, the Maltese government declared its ports to be unsafe and therefore there will be no authorisation of landings of migrants rescue boats due to the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, the Maltese government claimed that it could no longer guarantee rescues of vessels in distress. The decision was communicated to Libya and Italy and Germany.

Similarly Italy also declared its ports to be unsafe earlier this week.

The government referred to the situation in Libya and said that the migrants being held in detention in the war-torn countries were at the mercy of smugglers. The government referred to humanitarian organisations which carry out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and said that despite the “unsafe” ports, they were still operating and thereby facilitating either in a direct manner or indirectly the work of smugglers.

Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo and Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said that they held a meeting with the German Ambassador to Malta regarding the Alan Kurdi, a German-flagged vessel operated by the civil search and rescue NGO Sea-Eye. The vessel has rescued 150 people from drowning. The government said that the vessel lacked enough provisions for those on board and lacked a safe port were it could disembark the rescuees. The government claimed that since the vessel was operating in the Central Mediterranean, smuggling intensified.

Earlier on Friday, Camilleri held a meeting with European Commissioner Ylva Johansson who is responsible for Home Affairs. Camilleri underlined that the European Union had to shoulder its responsibility.