Hundreds of lives have been saved within several days on the Central Mediterranean. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Malta to stop avoiding disembarkation and review cooperation with Libya. Pushbacks to Libya have been ordered by “superiors” from the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM). The Italian prosecutor’s office has opened an inquiry into the conduct of the so-called Libyan coast guard in an incident involving possible manslaughter.

Activity on the central Mediterranean route remain intense with 12 boats carrying 600 people arriving to Lampedusa in just two days on 11 and 12 February. Civilian rescuers and the Italian coast guard have saved hundreds of lives over the last week. On 11 February the NGO hotline reported around 80 people rescued by the Italian coast guard after Maltese authorities ignored distress calls. On the same day, the coast guard rescued other groups of 14 and 39 people respectively. The Ocean Viking rescued 88 people including one baby and 27 unaccompanied children in distress in Libyan waters on an overcrowded wooden boat on 12 February. After conducting a total of five rescue operations the civilian vessel had 247 survivors on board by 14 February, 228 of whom, including 51 children, were rescued in less than 24 hours. Italian authorities managed to rescue 24 people on 14 February after their boat crashed into rocks of the coast of Lampedusa.

On 15 February the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, published her report following a visit to Malta in October 2021. The Commissioner stressed the need to improve the island state’s capacities and ensure effective co-ordination of search and rescue operations, stating: “Disagreements with other member states about disembarkation responsibilities should never be allowed to put human rights – including the right to life – at risk or exempt the authorities from their nonrefoulement obligations”. Underlining that Libya is not a safe place for disembarkation, the Commissioner urged Maltese authorities to review their cooperation with the Libyan authorities. Mijatović emphasised: “Such co-operation activities must be suspended until clear guarantees of their human rights compliance are in place. Moreover, accountability must be ensured for any returns to Libya occurring as a result of action by the Maltese authorities”.

A search and rescue mission coordinator from AFM has stated that orders to pushback a group of people to Libya came from his superiors through the chain of command. Testifying in a constitutional case, he said: “I have no right whatsoever to bring them [the migrants] into Maltese port, let alone take them to another country”. The case was filed on behalf of 52 people on the move who are suing the Maltese state for breaching their rights by forcing them back to Libya in April 2020. The case is set to continue in March 2022.

The Agrigento prosecutor’s office has opened an inquiry into an incident where a vessel from the so-called Libyan coast guard rammed into a dinghy carrying 21 people in international waters. Three people are believed to have drowned following the collision. Prosecutors are looking to file charges of manslaughter and aiding and abetting clandestine migration in relation to the case. The 18 people who survived were rescued and disembarked on Lampedusa by an Italian coast guard patrol boat returning from another rescue operation.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) 1,721 people, including 53 children have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2022 as of 12 February. 121 people are recorded as having died or gone missing so far this year.

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