On 22 May 400 people rescued by SEA-EYE 4 disembarked in Italy. However, more than 600 people are confirmed dead or missing on the central Mediterranean route and almost 10,000 have been returned to Libya, where the bodies of babies and toddlers washed up over the weekend. Meanwhile the focus of EU and member states remains the prevention of arrivals with renewed efforts of migration control cooperation with Tunisia and Libya and Cyprus requesting intervention from the Commission to stop departures from Syria. In Malta, where arrivals have dropped significantly, the trial of the so-called El Hiblu three continues with witnesses supporting the accused and the defence seeking correct translations.

After some delay and initial reluctance by authorities in Italy, 400 people including 150 children rescued by SEA-EYE 4 in its first mission on the central Mediterranean could disembark in the port of Pozzallo. The Aita Mari rescue vessel, operated by the NGO Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario (SMH), rescued 50 people including four children drifting in the Mediterranean after departing from Libya. Another 100 people including eight babies who departed from Libya were rescued by the Tunisian navy after an engine failure had left them in distress. According to the NGO hotline Alarm Phone, Tunisia cannot be considered safe for return and accordingly the monitoring by Maltese merchant vessels qualifies as assistance in illegal pushbacks. Following a deadly period on the central Mediterranean the bodies of babies and toddlers washed up on a beach in Zuwara, Libya on 22 May, reportedly the children had been travelling with their parents on one of the many dinghies that set off from Libya over the latest period. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports the interception and return to Libya of 1,489 people between May 16-22. According to the UN agency the total of interceptions and returns to Libya stands at 9,659 as of 22 May 2021, compared to 11,891 throughout all of 2020. 632 people are confirmed dead or missing so far in 2021, compared to 978 throughout last year.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concludes in a recently released report that: “Libya is not a safe place for the return or disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea; current SAR policies and practices in the central Mediterranean enable a range of violations and abuses against migrants rather than ending them; and all States in the region, as well as the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, the EU Naval Force for the Mediterranean, the European Commission and other stakeholders, must urgently reform their SAR policies, practices, funding and cooperation in order to promote more principled and effective migration governance that prioritizes the protection of migrants at sea and is consistent with obligations under international law…” The human rights lawyer Omer Shatz, who is known for submitting extensive evidence of EU Member States’ officials’ and agents’ complicity in crimes against humanity on the Mediterranean and in Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, stated on 22 May: ‘What’s happening in the Mediterranean is murder by drowning. It happens intentionally and systematically, as part of a specific policy…” and adding on interception and returns to Libya: “Systematic torture of people takes place in the camps — filmed, as a commitment to get ransom from family and/or friends. Women are systematically raped. Forced labour takes place, raw human trafficking, starvation, people die from diseases such as tuberculosis that are easy to treat. And we know that there are executions of people who are not paid ransoms, and who have no value for the camp managers”. A research by the Geneva-based NGO Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime on changing human smuggling and trafficking dynamics in Sahel, Tunisia and Libya poses two equally problematic scenarios in the latter country: “the hybrid governing structures that gain power and resources through the management of human smuggling – as well as other crimes – have proven remarkably resilient. A key question is whether these mafia-like groups will become the imperfect building blocks of a new Libyan state or instead act as barriers to progress”.

Meanwhile, EU and member states remain undeterred and active in seeking to broadening cooperation with North African countries on migration prevention. During her recent visit to Tunisia, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson stated: “We have a new opportunity in Libya and I am ready to engage with the new Libyan government in talks on how we can have a better and closer cooperation, including when it comes to managing migration”. Italian Interior Minister, Luciana Lamorgese who took part in the visit announced that a hotline will be established between Rome and Tunis to counter irregular migration and a joint statement stressed the countries “determination to fight against criminal human trafficking networks”. According to Lamorgese more than 13,000 people arrived irregularly in Italy this year, of whom nearly 9,000 had departed from Libya and over 3,000 from Tunisia.

Malta has seen a significant drop in arrivals from more than 1,200 between January and May 2020 to just 147 in the same period of 2021. Britta Rabe from the NGO hotline Alarm Phone linked the decrease to the conduct of the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM): “We are observing that the AFM doesn’t go out for rescues at all to boats in distress in Maltese search and rescue zone, south of Lampedusa. Instead, they count on merchant vessels and the Libyan coastguard to push boat people back to Libya.”

In Malta, the controversial trial of the so-called El Hiblu three continues, involving two children and a youth charged with terrorism-related offences for seizing control of the merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 in March 2019 and facing up to 30 years of imprisonment. On 21 May, two of seven witnesses who were among the more than 100 people aboard the El Hiblu 1 at the time of the alleged offence presented their testimonies before magistrate Nadine Lia. According to the witnesses, the role of the three accused was to act as translators and – in coordination with the captain of the vessel – to calm down the hungry and cold people aboard, with some panicking over their possible return to Libya and considering jumping overboard. The defence team has requested a removal of the current translator, Dr Anthony Licari, as he is not translating the version of events given by the witness in a faithful manner and the witnesses struggle to understand him.

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