The Malta Independent 8 December 2022, Thursday
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Malta’s ‘violent borders’ are coordinating pushbacks, not rescues – migrant hotline support NGO

Marc Galdes Sunday, 6 November 2022, 08:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

The reported death of four-year-old Loujin and the 2020 Easter Sunday pushback which cost 12 people their lives are individual tragedies which are a small percentage of the 29,000+ deaths that have taken place on migration routes to Europe since 2014.

2,836 migrants and refugees have died since January 2021 attempting to reach Italy or Malta through the central Mediterranean route and the cases mentioned above place Malta under constant scrutiny from the public for allegedly not carrying out its duty to save these lives.

Hotline support NGO Alarm Phone is accusing Malta of having “violent borders” and not carrying out its duty to save lives at sea.

“Alarm Phone would be quite happy if Malta lived up to its duties: coordinating rescues, not coordinating pushbacks or forms of non-assistance or abandonment,” a spokesperson for Alarm Phone told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

The spokesperson pointed out that even when the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) is available to coordinate a rescue it is choosing not to rescue boats in distress because the AFM is waiting for the boat to either drift into the Italian SAR zone or for the boat to be picked up by Libyan authorities.

In an interview with Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri published by The Malta Independent on Sunday on 18 September, he suggested that journalists should follow any allegations made by NGOs and not “only follow the story up to the allegation”.

Since 19 September, this newsroom has been attempting to get in contact with Brigadier Clinton J. O’Neil for an interview through the Home Affairs Ministry, to discuss the allegations made by multiple NGOs.

Since then additional follow-up emails have been sent with no response and multiple phone calls have all been met with the same message, “we’re working on it”. In the past two weeks our phone calls have not been answered. A text message sent last Monday asking Minister Camilleri to intervene has been left unanswered.

The Malta Independent on Sunday got in touch with a spokesperson from Alarm Phone to discuss how Malta is allegedly breaking international laws through its delays and pushbacks.

 

How is Malta not carrying out its duty?

In Malta rescues are carried out through the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC). This means the AFM is not obliged to physically go out, rescue migrants and bring them back to the Maltese border. However, their role is to coordinate a rescue where they could ask a nearby vessel to pick up the people in distress and disembark them at the safest border.

However, when the problem of Malta’s small size and the minimal support from the EU was brought up, the Alarm Phone spokesperson was asked whether Malta even has the resources to do more.

Initially, they said that “first and foremost” Malta has to live up to its legal obligations.

“We are only asking for states to live up to these duties. Unfortunately, they do not. If Malta violates them, regardless of the reason, this is a problem.”

They mentioned how Malta cannot break the principle of non-refoulement, which means that a country cannot send an asylum-seeker back to a country where they might be in danger.

They said that Alarm Phone is not asking Malta to disembark all asylum seekers in Malta, but it is insisting that it carries out its duty to coordinate a rescue at sea and bring the asylum seekers to a port of safety.

Shifting towards whether Malta has the resources to engage in these distress events, the spokesperson said that if there is a resource issue then this needs to be addressed. They also noted that if there is an issue with resources then there should also be questions about whether the Maltese SAR zone has to be as big as it is if Malta cannot guarantee to coordinate rescue operations in this area.

They pointed out that if Malta receives too many asylum seekers to the point that it is unable to offer them the protection and the accommodation they need, then there is a need for relocation possibilities which should be organised at a European Union level.

However, the spokesperson expressed their scepticism on this as Malta has not said that it was simply overwhelmed to the point that it could not conduct rescue operations.

In fact, they mentioned how this year, only a few hundred people have reached Malta.

“I think it would be a bit problematic to say that Malta was only able of rescuing such a low number, this is obviously not the case. The AFM has a lot of these assets; it is not a question of resources.”

Moreover, they brought up the recent instance where a boat carrying 23 asylum seekers was rescued by a merchant’s vessel, under the coordination of the Maltese RCC, but the boat was sent to disembark the people in Egypt rather than a much closer and safe port in Europe.

They said that it is fine to coordinate a rescue and instruct a merchant’s vessel, but “the rescue is not concluded until the people have disembarked at a port of safety and Egypt is not a port of safety”.

“There are so many cases that have proven the violent conduct of the Maltese authorities. Rather than hiding behind this idea of a lack of resources, the question really is, are you upholding international law or are you violating international law?”

 

Breaking international laws

In light of the allegations that Malta is breaking international laws, the spokesperson was asked to say what actions Alarm Phones believes should be taken against Malta.

They acknowledged that Malta is not the only country that is not following the rules.

“The history of the Mediterranean is a history of impunity, where thousands of deaths occur without any form of legal consequence; that's an issue.”

“I acknowledge that it is incredibly difficult to follow up on these cases because most often the people concerned are not in Europe or they might be dead. It is incredibly difficult to have any sort of real investigation with justified outcomes on these border crimes.”

They brought up the 2020 Easter Sunday pushback, where asylum seekers were picked up by a fishing boat and then returned to Libya where they were thrown into a detention centre. Five people had died and seven went missing by the time they were picked up at sea.

They said that this was a clear case of Maltese non-assistance and the orchestration of a pushback to Libya which cost lives.

“What we are calling for is that these violations need to have some sort of consequence; a legal consequence for those who were involved. We are first and foremost concerned with reducing the violence at borders and if some sort of legal consequence can reduce the violence that we currently see then we are in favour of that.”

 

What is a boat in distress?

Alarm Phone has previously criticised AFM by saying that for AFM, as long as a boat is moving then it is not considered to be in distress. This means that even if the boat is overcrowded, as long as it is still moving, the AFM will not consider the boat to be in distress.

When the spokesperson was asked to give his definition of a boat in distress, they said that for Alarm Phone what constitutes a boat in distress is a lot more “expansive” – "all boats that do not have a professional crew and captain, that are overcrowded, vessels that are not sea-worthy for such a large number of people and are not capable to master the dangerous conditions of the sea in a safe manner”.

They found it very problematic to assume that a boat which is moving is not in distress.

“To give an example: the two very large boats that were rescued south of Sicily by the Italian forces. According to Malta, these boats would not be in distress, simply because they were moving for some time. From my perspective, this is deeply problematic given that there were 6/700 people on board.”

Furthermore, they said that from what they know Malta identifies a boat being in distress when the boat calls for help. Nevertheless, the AFM will often use the excuse that the boat is moving on to not coordinate a rescue, even though calling for help from a boat should be enough. “This is a contradiction.”

“Malta is choosing to wait for the boat to either reach the Italian SAR zone or be picked up by the Libyan authorities.”

 

Reaction to Minister’s comments

In the interview with Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, he had also said that a lot of the allegations made by NGOs were “unjust”.

When the spokesperson was asked how concrete these allegations were, they said that “they were very true and very accurate”.

They said that Alarm Phone and other NGOs have been documenting Malta's involvement in the violation of human rights for years.

They can be traced back to when Matteo Salvini came to power last in 2018, and Malta had followed Italy with a very restrictive immigration policy, which had really dangerous consequences for those at sea. People were not being allowed to disembark quickly from NGO vessels, people were sent back to Libya, the spokesman said.

They also added that Malta supports the Libyan authorities in these “abductions” at sea, where they are sent back to a place where torture has been documented for many years.

“All of this is not something that is made up.”

“From the Easter massacre of 2020 when the boat was returned to Libya, to the more recent cases of non-assistance, to the use of a merchant’s vessel to transfer people to Egypt, to pulling boats out of the Maltese SAR zone by Libyan coast guards who were coordinated by Maltese authorities.”

“All of these things are not made up, they have occurred for years now and I think it’s quite sad to see that the Minister would claim this because the evidence that is there speaks to a very different truth.”

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