Maltese authorities continue to ignore distress calls resulting in interception and return to unsafe Libya by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. Civilian rescuers continue to save lives while the criminalisation and crack-down from authorities remain ongoing.

Media have picked up on information compiled by Aditus Foundation, published in a recent country update on Malta from the Asylum Information Database (AIDA) managed by ECRE. The report states: ”Since May 2020 and throughout 2021, the AFM (Armed Forces of Malta) drastically decreased its rescues at sea. NGOs report that Malta is not conducting rescue operations in the Maltese SAR zone south of Lampedusa, and instead relies on merchant vessels and the Libyan coastguard to push boats back to Libya. The authorities are accused of doing their utmost to prevent boats entering the island’s SAR zone in line with the Malta-Libya deal concluded in May 2020 and foreseeing the creation of a coordination unit in each country to assist in operations against illegal migration” also noting: “The AFM’s definition of ‘distress’ is also a reason behind the decrease in rescues, as it considers that “any boat that is still moving is not in distress, despite it being overcrowded, and people not having life vests”. This might help explain the historic low occupancy rate at open reception centres in Malta – as revealed in the country update standing at just 26 per cent in December 2021 when 696 people were accommodated in facilities with a capacity of 2,638. Further, according to the update the rejection rate in Malta has soared from 10 to 76 per cent over the past five years.

Following recent rejections by Maltese authorities to intervene in distress cases within its search and rescue zone (SAR zone) new incidents confirms this doubtful tactic. On 19 May the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported of 120 people in distress after two days at sea, deep within the Maltese SAR zone and after unsuccessful appeals for a rescue operation, the organisation concludes that the group was “abducted” by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya. On 22 May SOS Mediterranée reported the rescue of 75 people by the organisation’s vessel, Ocean Viking – one of the survivors had to be medically evacuated by Italian maritime authorities as he suffered from severe injuries sustained in Libya and required immediate care. On the same day SOS Mediterranée searched in vain for a group in distress confirming their interception and return by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. However, reportedly the crew of Nadir a vessel operated by the German NGO ResQship  located a rubber dinghy with 75 people on board with a ship from the so-called Libyan Coast Guard circling the scene as they carried out the rescue. “About 40 people were already on board the Libyan Coastguard’s ship, and were prevented from continuing their journey,” ResQship stated on the incident. On 23 May the Ocean Viking saved another 64 men, women and children, initially assisted by the NGO Open Arms, after 16 hours at sea bringing the total of survivors onboard the vessel to 296. The rescue took place within the Maltese SAR zone. Also on 23 May Alarm Phone reported of 100 people in distress in harsh weather and without food with Tunisian, Italian and Maltese authorities unresponsive to alerts from the NGO hotline. On 25 May Alarm Phone stated: “31 lives at risk in Malta SAR! We were called by a boat that left from Benghazi, reporting 5 people severely sick. We informed Armed Forces of Malta but were told they don’t consider the boat to be in distress. The RCC Malta again denied its responsibility – this is unacceptable!!”. The hotline further reported of an ongoing rescue attempt by civilian search and rescue operators of 110 people with many thrown overboard as their boat capsized in bad weather and with “European authorities” unresponsive. Also on 25 May Alarm Phone reports of 76 feared deaths after shipwreck off Tunisia – according to the organisation 24 people have been rescued.

Meanwhile, the ongoing crack-down and criminalisation of civilian search and rescue operators continues with four crew members from the Iuventa rescue vessel, that was seized almost five years ago after saving a total of 14,000 lives in the Mediterranean Sea, appearing for a preliminary court hearing in Italy. Along with 17 other NGO workers the four stand accused of colluding with human smugglers – charges that could mean up to 20-years of imprisonment. The accusations are highly contested and an investigation by the London-based Forensic Architecture submitted to Italian courts, state that: “facts are not relied upon to establish a truthful account of events but to construct factual lies”. The lawyer, Francesca Cancellaro, representing the four, who has described the case as unique given the length of the investigation, the use of undercover agents, wiretapping and the number of defendants, stated: “I am quite confident that we will show their full innocence,” noting: “We are talking about people who are involved in rescue operations. They respect the obligation that comes from the law of the sea: the duty to rescue people in distress”. On 20 May the supreme Cassation court in Italy cleared four Eritrean nationals of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. “It is an important sentence that I hope will be useful to other cases based on unjust charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration”, said attorney Raffaella Flore, who represented the defendants in the Cassation trial.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) describes a vicious cycle of abuse in Libya. “We have really made no progress in years,” Federico Soda heading the UN agency’s missions in the country told reporters in Brussels on 24 May. Soda continued: “Not enough is being done to change or to try and influence change,” reportedly noting that the EU cannot just stop migrant crossings and think the issue has been resolved. According to the head of mission smuggling and trafficking “is quite alive and well” in Libya. He further pointed a blurring of lines between state institutions and armed groups, stating: “That’s not unique to the [Libyan] coast guard, that’s just a little bit of the reality”.

According to the IOM 6,340 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya attempting to cross the central Mediterranean in 2022 so far. At least another 588 have died or gone missing on the dangerous route.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.