The destiny of a group of 62 people in distress in the Maltese Search & Rescue zone since Tuesday remains unknown. In another case, Maltese official admits to having coordinated upon instructions from the office of the Prime Minister a push-back operation to Libya that involved the deaths of 12 people. MEPs, Commission and Council of Europe confirm that Libya is not a safe place for disembarkation.

On Tuesday the NGO Alarm Phone received a distress call from a group of 62 people in a dinghy drifting in Maltese waters. A privately owned fishing boat, which controversially returned people to Libya earlier this month, was on its way to the group. Alarm Phone is urging Italian and Maltese authorities to carry out a rescue operation but without response so far. They lost contact with the boat and are concerned that the passengers are left to die or are pushed back to Libya “by proxy”.

In a joint statement 28 NGOs address the Maltese government: “It is disconcerting that news of migrants about to drown and who could be saved by Malta’s prompt intervention does not trigger any sort of response from the Government. …Government is fully aware that returning migrants to Libya is a clear and unequivocal breach of international law, confirmed in 2013 by a decree of the European Court of Human Rights against Malta. Attempting to circumvent these obligations through the engagement of a private vessel would in no way absolve Malta of its legal and moral responsibilities. On the contrary, if such allegations of collusion were to be confirmed, they would indicate a cowardly and callous approach to human dignity itself.”

On Wednesday, in the context of criminal investigations launched against Maltese officials, former OPM operative Neville Gafa’, has admitted under oath that he had co-ordinated the push back of 51 people to Libya on instructions of the Office of the Prime Minister. The Italian newspaper Avveneri investigated a case from mid-April, when a boat with people fleeing Libya was left at sea for five days before being picked up and returned by a Libyan fishing boat. Avvenire identified the Libyan fishing boat, reconstructed its property passages and obtained an answer from Frontex, which attributes responsibility to the maritime authorities of the involved Mediterranean countries. Although National and EU authorities were informed in timely manner they did not carry out a rescue, resulting in the deaths of twelve people. The newspaper also identified the deceased, some of which drowned and some of which died on the fishing vessel.

In a debate in the Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) of the European Parliament on Monday with representatives of the Commission, Frontex, UNHCR, the Council of Europe and NGOs, a majority of MEPs insisted that Libya is not a “safe country” for disembarkation of people rescued at sea. They demanded that “the EU should stop channeling funds to Libya to manage migration and to train its coastguard, as the violation of human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers continues”. They also acknowledged the challenges for countries at the southern sea borders of the EU receiving the majority of people fleeing Libya, namely Italy and Malta, and underlined that the European common asylum system needs to be reshuffled, “with a focus on solidarity among member states and respect of international legislation”. In her exchange with the Parliament, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, highlighted the need to continue search & rescue during the Covid 19 crisis, increase rescue capacity and improve co-operation between states. A representative from the Commission confirmed their efforts to coordinate a solution but stressed that search and rescue and disembarkation are member state competences.

Also on Monday, the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), and Italian Recreational and Cultural Association (ARCI) filed a legal complaint to the European Court of Auditors. They argue that the EU should suspend funding under the EU Trust Fund for Africa’s ‘Support to Integrated Border and Migration Management in Libya’ program because it results in the return of people to Libya. A country where they face abuse and severe human rights violations and in breach of EU budgetary laws and international human rights law.

In the course of last week, 56 people arrived in Lampedusa and a boat of 49 was brought to a port of the island of Gran Canaria, Spain. As of April 30, 256 people have been recorded to have died trying to reach Europe by the Mediterranean in 2020.

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Photo: (CC) mini_malist, February 2019

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