Sea-Watch alleges illegal pushback in Maltese SAR

Updated 05:08 PM

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Humanitarian NGO Sea-Watch International has raised the alarm after witnessing a Libyan patrol boat pick up asylum seekers in Malta’s search-and-rescue zone, prompting fears of an illegal pushback to Libya.

Sea-Watch, which seeks to assist in search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean, had sent out its reconnaissance aircraft Moonbird to monitor a group of 90 people in distress on a wooden boat. No one appears to be wearing any life vests.

Newsbook.com.mt is informed that Moonbird spotted the boat at around 2pm, 8 nautical miles within Malta’s SAR zone, and that Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre has acknowledged its presents.

But the aircraft also observed the Ras Jadir – a Libyan Coastguard patrol boat – a short distance away, also within the Maltese SAR zone, heading towards the group in distress. The patrol boat already had some 15-20 people on board from an earlier interception, prompting concerns of an illegal pushback into Libya.

“Yet again, they are preparing an illegal Libyan pullback in the Maltese SAR area,” Sea Watch lamented on Twitter.

Pushbacks or pullbacks fall foul of the international law principle of non-refoulement, which forbids countries from returning asylum seekers to a country where they would be in likely danger. Given Libya’s notorious detention camps for migrants – compared to concentration camps by Pope Francis – such concerns would apply in this case.

Sources suggested that Frontex’ Malta-based aircraft Eagle 1 spotted the boat earlier in the day and reported the matter to the Libyan Coastguard. Incidentally, in an interview with Newsbook.com.mt last April, Italian investigative journalist Nello Scavo had accused Frontex of aiding and abetting illegal pushbacks.

NGOs insist pushbacks should never be considered

In a reaction to the news, aditus, Integra Foundation and the Jesuit Refugee Service Malta expressed their extreme concern at allegations that Malta may be complicit in this pushback.

“Returning migrants to Libya means returning men, women and children to severe human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, violence and torture, inhumane living conditions, human trafficking and slavery,” the NGOs said. “It is entirely unacceptable for Malta to even consider engaging in such activities in its efforts to reduce the number of arrivals of persons by sea.”

They recalled that Malta is responsible for coordinating the rescue of persons in distress within its SAR zone and to ensure their disembarkation at a safe port. As highlighted by the European Commission and by the Council of Europe, Libya does not qualify as a safe port.

Consequently, the three NGOs strongly urged Malta to refrain from pursuing any activity that may result in people being exposed to serious human rights violation. They also joined the Maltese authorities in urging EU institutions to strengthen their assistance to Malta to enable it to fulfil its obligations.