The Malta Independent 29 January 2023, Sunday
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European Commission considering Malta’s call for EU humanitarian mission in Libya

Karl Azzopardi Sunday, 19 April 2020, 10:00 Last update: about 4 years ago

Malta’s call for an EU humanitarian mission in Libya is being considered and the issue will be discussed at the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting in the coming days, the European Commission said.

Earlier this week, Minister Evarist Bartolo called on the EU to launch a humanitarian mission that would ‘incentivise’ migrants to stay in Libya rather than face the dangers of a sea crossing.

Replying to questions by The Malta Independent on Sunday, a spokesperson for EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the proposal was being taken into consideration.

The Commission has also urged Malta and Italy to work together to find solutions, while at the same time acknowledging the pressure the two countries are facing. The Commission said it can help with migrant relocations, but it can only do this after these migrants are saved and disembark in one of the Member States.

Concerns have increased over the past days as the number of boats leaving Libya’s shores has increased. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the situation has worsened as several countries, including Malta and Italy, have closed their ports, leaving migrants without a port of safety in which to disembark.

This newspaper contacted the European Commission of Home Affairs to see what the EU plans to do to tackle the migration crisis in the context of COVID-19.

 

The commission’s response to the COVID-19 situation

“While measures to contain and limit the further spread of the Coronavirus are for Member States to take, we are ready to support them where needed, including when it comes to protecting migrants and refugees present in Member States,” the Commission said.

The European Commission is in contact with Member States' authorities to identify areas where it could support the implementation of such measures, and help with further prevention measures.

“Each national context is different and so is our response,” the spokesperson explained. “We have provided funding flexibility to Italy, for example, and supported relocation from the camps on the Greek islands.”

It also pointed out, however, that search and rescue zones do not fall under the European Commission’s remit, as these are the responsibility of the respective states.

It is not until disembarkation of migrants takes place that the Commission can offer its services.

“EU operations have contributed to saving over 760,000 lives since 2015. To ensure that no more lives are lost at sea, our work to break the smuggling business model and prevent these perilous journeys taking place continues,” the spokesperson said.

Last Friday, the Commission adopted guidelines on the implementation of relevant EU rules on asylum and return procedures and on resettlement in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, which it will present to Member States.

This responds to Member States' request for advice on ways to ensure the continuity of procedures and the respect of, at a minimum, basic rights. The guidance was prepared with the support of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), and in cooperation with national authorities.

 

Easter weekend migration crisis

On Good Friday, four migrant ships from Libya were detected by Frontex in Italy and Malta’s search and rescue zones.

Despite incessant calls for help from migration NGOs, the governments of both countries refused to open their ports for the vessels at sea, insisting that they cannot provide a safe place for disembarkation.

This resulted in at least one of the migrant groups being sent back to Libya, while others fell victim to the harsh conditions they had to live through during their five days of being at sea.

NGOs have said that Malta and Italy are to blame for these deaths due to their refusal to allow them to disembark.

The Malta Independent asked if Malta is truly at fault here, or if the responsibility should be shared by all EU member states.

The spokesperson said that assisting persons at sea is an obligation under international law and the Commission fully trusts that the national authorities will investigate this tragic incident.

“We encourage Member States to continue working together and with Frontex to ensure the continuity of search and rescue activities and find solutions to disembarkation in this particularly challenging context. Once disembarkation takes place, the Commission is ready to coordinate relocation efforts,” it said.

The Commission acknowledged the exceptional strain both Italy and Malta face as a result of the Coronavirus leading to a lack of both capacity and manpower but it encouraged them to stay in contact with each other and work together in the spirit of solidarity to find solutions.

In response to last week’s case, Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo called for the EU to launch a humanitarian mission in Libya in order to better condition of life in the hopes of reducing the need for migrants to leave their country.

The spokesperson said that the letter Bartolo sent to the Vice-President is under consideration and the issues raised by Malta will be discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council video-conference in the coming week.  The commission is also working on a New Pact on Migration and Asylum which will address migration issues comprehensively.

The Commission stands ready to support the Maltese authorities to address the impact of Coronavirus on migration management. “We are in contact with the Maltese authorities and there are various ongoing projects funded by the EU to support the reception system and health services provision. Other options for support could be explored as necessary.”

In the meantime, it is working with the Libyan Coast Guard, strictly with the aim to enhance their capacity to carry out search and rescue operations in their zone of responsibility, where already too many lives have been lost. 

Having said this, the spokesperson emphasised that the key to solving all issues related to Libya lies in the ending of the conflict that has spread across the country.

“That requires first immediate stop of the fighting by all actors, commitment to a total ceasefire and return to political negotiations to reach a political solution to the crisis in Libya.”

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