Malta is increasing 'despicable and illegal' migrant pushbacks, says Amnesty

By agency reporter
September 10, 2020

The Maltese authorities have been increasing their use of dangerous and illegal tactics to prevent the arrival of refugees and migrants on their shores, Amnesty International says in a new report.

Some of the Maltese authorities’ actions may have involved criminal acts - resulting in avoidable deaths, prolonged arbitrary detention and illegal returns to war-torn Libya. The Maltese authorities have also used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to declare that Malta was not a safe place to disembark.

Meanwhile, Amnesty UK is pointing out that the “unfeeling hostility” of the Maltese authorities toward at-risk people in the Mediterranean is comparable to similar hostility displayed by UK politicians over dangerous English Channel sea crossings made by people seeking asylum.

The 35-page Amnesty report - Waves of impunity – shows that during 2020 the Maltese authorities have escalated a series of unlawful – sometimes unprecedented – measures to avoid assisting refugees and migrants. These have included unlawful pushbacks to Libya, diverting boats towards Italy rather than rescuing people in distress, illegally detaining hundreds of people on ill-equipped ferries off Maltese waters, and signing an agreement with Libya to prevent people from reaching Malta.

The 'Easter Monday pushback' illustrates the lengths to which the Maltese authorities are willing to go to prevent people arriving on their shores, said Amnesty.

On 15 April, a group of 51 people - including seven women and three children - were unlawfully returned to Tripoli after being rescued in Malta’s search-and-rescue region by the commercial fishing boat Dar Al Salam 1. The vessel, which had been contracted by the Maltese government, took those onboard back to Libya and handed them over to the Libyan authorities, exposing refugees and migrants – who had just survived a deadly shipwreck – to further deadly risks. Five people were dead when the vessel reached Libya, and the survivors reported that a further seven people were missing at sea. Survivors also reported that those on board were not given medical assistance. In an official statement the Maltese authorities confirmed they had coordinated the operation.

The NGO Alarm Phone has evidence that other dangerous pushbacks by the Maltese authorities may have occurred during 2019-20 - incidents which have not been investigated.

Malta’s abusive practices are part of wider moves by EU member states to outsource to Libya responsibility for the fate of refugees and migrants in the central Mediterranean. Those returned to Libya are frequently detained in locations where torture and other ill-treatment is common. From the beginning of January to 27 August, 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 in Frontex and other EU operations.

Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International’s Europe Regional Researcher, said: “Malta is stooping to ever more despicable and illegal tactics to shirk their responsibilities to people in need. EU member states must stop assisting in the return of people to a country where they face unspeakable horrors. By continuing to empower abusers and to hide their heads in the sand when violations are committed, those EU leaders share responsibility for them.”

Italy in particular has worked closely with Libya, providing support to the Libyan maritime authorities with vessels, training and other assistance.

Despite intensifying conflict and the arrival of COVID-19 threatening the humanitarian situation of refugees and migrants in Libya, Italy has continued to implement policies to keep people in Libya. These include extending its Memorandum of Understanding on Migration with Libya aimed at prevent people leaving the country, extending its military operations in the region supporting Libya’s maritime authorities, and maintaining legislation and practices aimed at the criminalisation of NGOs rescuing people in the Mediterranean.

The central Mediterranean is the latest border at which Amnesty is highlighting abuses by EU member states. Earlier this year, Amnesty documented abuses on the borders between Croatia and Bosnia, and Greece and Turkey. The EU urgently needs an independent human rights monitoring system at its external borders to ensure accountability for violations and abuses.

Amnesty has also repeatedly called on the UK authorities to adopt radically different policies in respect of English Channel sea crossings being made by people seeking asylum after a period of heightened political rhetoric and intense media attention. The UK, which last year received fewer applications for asylum (32,432) than many other European countries, recently reportedly drew up plans to deploy the Royal Navy in the Channel to deter such crossings.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said: “It’s a matter of real shame that the UK has displayed the same unfeeling hostility toward people seeking asylum in the Channel, as Malta and other EU counties are showing in the Mediterranean.

“Seeking a place of safety is a right enshrined in international law – not something that countries can choose to uphold only when it suits them. Just as Malta and the wider EU need to start sharing responsibility for ensuring safe and legal pathways for people seeking asylum, Britain needs to work with France to safeguard people not demonise them.”

* Read Waves of Impunity here

* Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org/en/

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