The Malta Independent 21 October 2021, Thursday

Migrants held on board ‘prisons at sea’ in 2020 claim breach of human rights

Thursday, 14 October 2021, 12:48 Last update: about 6 days ago

Thirty-two irregular migrants who were held aboard Captain Morgan and Supreme Cruises' tourism boats in 2020 filed an application before the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional Jurisdiction , arguing that their human rights were breached while they were held at sea.

The applicants left Libya on different days between April, May and June 2020, by boarding small boats with other people - men, woman and children of different nationalities, to try and reach Europe, the application read.

After some days at sea, "they were unable to continue their voyage due to their boats suffering damage, or due to bad or dangerous weather, and needed to ask for help to be rescued," it continued.

The application read that all boats in question, while having left Libya at different times, were in Malta's Search and Rescue zone when asking for rescue.

"They were rescued by vessels closeby that were probably acting on instructions given by Malta's Search and Rescue Coordination Centre."

After they were saved, all applicants were taken to the same sea zone and transferred onto private vessels, known in the tourism sector for the services they offer, including tours and boat parties, it read. "It was in fact the government, through the Office of the Prime Minister and the Home Affairs Ministry, that coordinated this operation, meaning the rescue of the migrants, their transfer onto the private vessels and the supplies needed."

These Captain Morgan and Supreme Cruises vessels - four in all, were positioned around 13 nautical miles off Malta's coast, so in international waters right outside of Maltese territorial waters, the application read."

"The boats, crew and the applicants remained under the direct control of the Maltese state. The first Captain Morgan ship, Europa II, left Malta on 30 April 2020, with the aim of housing a group of around 56 rescued migrants around that time. The second vessel, il-Bahari, left Malta in 7 May to receive around 120 migrants who were rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta. On 15 May, the vessel Atlantiss took the place of il-Bahari and on 28 May, the vessel Jade went out."

"For the weeks they spent onboard, the applicants were never officially informed about the reasons why they were placed on the boats or about the Maltese government's plans with regard to their situation. At no stage were they informed about their right to ask for asylum in Malta, they were not given Detention Orders and nobody spoke to them about the right for redress against their detention."

"The applicants say that at a certain point, the boat captains asked them to decide in which EU member state they want to be relocated to, as according to the Captain, that was the Maltese government's plan."

The application reads that while on these boats, the applicants were not able to have any contact with the outside world, except for a few minutes when the captain of the boats would switch on the wifi, "and even in those rare moments, the quality of reception was very low. They couldn't communicate with their families. They had no access to information or legal advice regarding their situation. They couldn't exercise their right to ask for asylum and they had no access to the courts or a tribunal that could examine their situation and offer an effective remedy."

"Not only did the applicants not have contact with the outside world, but it was not even possible for the outside world to make contact with them."

"In this regard, and according to media reports, even representatives form the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS) - which has a role in implementing the laws regarding refugee and asylum seeker protection  - weren't allowed onto the boats." It went on to read that not even UNHCR representatives, who are normally present for boat arrivals to provide information regarding international protection and offer support, boarded the boats.

"Due to the circumstances they found themselves in, and due to no information in this regard including, for example, a detention order or similar document, the applicants were effectively in a prison at sea, without any element of control over their lives. They didn't know where they were, what was going to happen to them, or for how many days, weeks or months they would remain at sea."

The application reads that while the applicants were on different boats and the living conditions were not at the same level across the four boats, "the applicants all passed through harsh experiences. In total, the four boats housed around 400 people, meaning that they were full, with migrants packed nearly on top of each other, and without any possibility for having privacy."

In terms of conditions, the application mentions that the boats are not made for long-term accommodation, did not have enough sanitary facilities for the people onboard, did not have beds. They had no choice but to sleep on the floor. "They were giving sleeping bags only after they complained."

The application continued that there weren't doctors or nurses aboard the boats. "One of the applicants, due to his lack of experience at sea, fell ill and was so dizzy that he couldn't walk. In the second week, things took a turn for the worse and he could not eat. He asked for help but there was no doctor and no medicine."

"Another applicant spent a number of days ill and waiting for a doctor. He remembers the captain giving him some medicine, and that help only arrived after ten days."

On 6 June in 2020, the government announced its decision that all the immigrants that were aboard the boats will disembark in Malta that day, meaning 37 days after Europa II left Malta originally.

All applicants were then sent to the Safi Detention Centre, or the Marsa Initial Reception Centre. "Again, at no time were they given a Detention Order or any similar document explaining the reasons for their detention or the legal basis for it. Nobody advised them as to how they could exercise their rights to remedy against this detention."

"This detention continued for weeks or months, where a number of the applicants were freed after they filed a habeas corpus application before the Magistrate's court, which had some harsh words about the detention."

The applicants asked the court to find the Prime Minister, The Home Affairs Ministry and the State Advocate responsible for the deprivation of their liberty in violation of the Constitution and the European Convention of Human rights , that the applicants were subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, that the defendants were responsible, through there decisions, for the breach of the applicants' right to asylum, and to order the defendants to provide adequate compensation as a consequence of their actions.

The application was  signed by lawyers Neil Falzon, Katrine Camilleri, Carla Camilleri, Cedric Mifsud and Mireille Boffa.

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