Amnesty International has claimed, in a newly published report, that the Maltese government has resorted to ‘dangerous and illegal’ measures for dealing with the arrivals of refugees and migrants at sea.
The report, titled “Waves of impunity: Malta’s violations of the rights of refugees and migrants in the Central Mediterranean”, provides a scathing review of what the global NGO called a change of approach to migrants in the Mediterranean.
“The Maltese government’s change in approach to arrivals in the central Mediterranean in 2020 has seen them take unlawful, and sometimes unprecedented, measures to avoid assisting refugees and migrants”, Amnesty International said in a statement published with the report.
“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.”
“Malta is stooping to ever more despicable 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,” Elisa De Pieri, Regional Researcher at Amnesty International, said.
“EU member states must stop assisting in the return of people to a country where they face unspeakable horrors.”
The NGO claimed that some of the actions taken by the Maltese authorities may have involved criminal acts being committed, resulting in avoidable deaths, prolonged arbitrary detention, and illegal returns to Libya.
They also noted that the government also used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to stop migrants from seeking safety in Europe.
“The abusive practices by Malta are part and parcel of wider efforts by EU member states and institutions to outsource the control of the central Mediterranean to Libya, in order that EU-supported Libyan authorities might intercept refugees and migrants at sea before they reach Europe”, the NGO said.
They said that this year, 7,256 people were pulled back to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard.
The NGO referred to a case they called ‘The Easter Monday pushback’, saying that this illustrates the “desperate lengths to which the Maltese authorities are willing to go to prevent people arriving on their shores.”
The case refers to 15 April earlier this year, when a group of 51 people, including seven women and three children, were rescued. It was reported that five migrants were found in the boat dead, with survivors saying another seven people were missing. The survivors were reportedly returned to Tripoli “after being rescued in Malta’s search and rescue region” by the commercial fishing boat Dar Al Salam 1.
The boat was reported by the Times of Malta to have been sent by Maltese authorities to ‘assist’ migrants, but ended up taking them back to Libya instead.
A magisterial inquiry was launched after the NGO Repubblika alleged that the actions of Prime Minister Robert Abela and AFM Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi had caused the death of the migrants.
The inquiry found no evidence to substantiate the claims, although the NGO protested that the inquiry itself was incomplete and that Magistrate Joe Mifsud had sought to absolve Abela of “the mortal consequences of his actions.”
In their recommendations at the end of the report, Amnesty International said that Malta should ensure that “thorough, independent and impartial criminal investigations are conducted and that, where there is admissible evidence available, suspects are brought to justice in a fair trial for charges that reflect the gravity of the human rights violations involved.”
They also called on Malta to provide adequate reparations to survivors and the families of the victims in line with international standards; and to publicly acknowledge “the unlawfulness of the policies and practices which led to the human rights violations described in this report.”
Malta should withdraw from MoU with Libya – Amnesty International
The NGO also took aim at Malta over a Memorandum of Understanding it signed with Libya recently, saying that Malta should withdraw from it and ensure that any form of cooperation with Libya focuses on protecting the human rights of refugees.
The MoU in question was signed at the end of May when Prime Minister Abela travelled to Tripoli on a state visit.
The MoU provides for the setting up of coordination centres in Valletta and Tripoli which will both be financed by the Maltese government and operated by mixed crews. These centres are limited to coordination and support.
Malta should ensure that that any form of cooperation with Libya focuses on protecting the human rights of refugees and migrants rather than on their containment in Libya; and make any cooperation with Libya on migration and border control conditional on the adoption of concrete and verifiable measures by Libya to protect the rights of refugees and migrants in the country, including through the closure of detention centres and the enactment of asylum laws by Libyan authorities, the NGO said.
“Until such steps have not achieved their objective, Malta should demand that Libyan authorities ensure that any refugees and migrants rescued under Libyan coordination are disembarked in a place of safety, i.e. not in Libya, and should fully cooperate with Libyan authorities towards the prompt identification of a suitable place of safety.”
In their statement, Amnesty International’s Elisa De Pieri said that “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.”
“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”, she concluded.