Wednesday

21st Oct 2020

Malta pushing refugees back into Libya war

  • "In order to do interceptions, they [the Libyan coastguard] need to be fed from [EU] aerial surveillance," the Sea Watch charity said (Photo: CSDP EEAS)

Malta has let the Libyan coastguard drag a boat of migrants from Maltese waters back to Libya, violating international law, a UN agency said.

The incident occurred on Sunday (15 March) after the wooden boat, carrying 49 people, became stranded because its engine failed, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said on Monday.

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Malta did it despite the fact Libya is currently in the grip of civil war, with shelling, air strikes, and street battles in the suburbs of Tripoli.

And the 49 people risked being taken back to a notorious facility in the Libyan capital run by the interior ministry, from which people have vanished in the past.

"At least 600 migrants returned from the sea to this facility have been reported missing since January. IOM is very concerned about the safety of people detained there and have received no response from the Libyan authorities who were asked to clarify the fate of those reported missing," it said in a statement.

It called on the EU "to end the return of vulnerable people to Libya and uphold the principle of non-refoulement".

"We remind states that ... they have a legal and moral responsibility to respond to distress cases at sea," the IOM said.

"We have confirmation the boat was in fact in Maltese waters when it was picked up by the Libyan coastguard ... Libya is not a safe place to send people back to," an IOM spokeswoman told EUobserver.

Neither Maltese authorities nor EU institutions were immediately available to comment on Monday.

Malta, over the weekend, did rescue another 112 people, the IOM said.

But the Libyan coastguard also intercepted and dragged back 400 more people from Libyan and international waters in the same period.

"The [Libyan] coast guard has returned over 2,500 people to Libya this year. Some were disembarked in Tripoli, hours after the main port in the city came under heavy shelling," the IOM said.

And EU states' navies in the region have long faced accusations of working with the Libyans to stop people from coming.

"The Libyan coastguard is not able to locate and track migrant boats itself. In order to do interceptions, they need to be fed from aerial surveillance," Tamino Böhm, from German NGO Sea Watch, told British newspaper The Guardian in a recent investigation into the collusion.

Sunday's Maltese incident also comes after Greece pushed back tens of thousands of would-be asylum seekers into Turkey in the past two weeks.

In one case also last weekend, Greek authorities put 450 migrants on a boat on the Greek island of Lesbos and sent them back.

"The Greek naval vessel carrying plus or minus 450 would-be asylum seekers has set sail from Lesbos. Yesterday, officials handed out deportation orders in Greek for people to sign, giving them no chance to lodge asylum claims," Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, said on Saturday.

Greece also suspended asylum applications for a month and used violence to repel people from its land borders.

But EU institutions declined to censure Athens for its actions, in what amounted to tacit approval for its and Maltese-type push-backs.

And for his part, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told The Guardian in an interview published also on Monday that he had done nothing wrong.

"It [the one-month asylum suspension] was necessary to send a clear signal of deterrence," he said.

There were 16,900 attempts at irregular EU border crossings in the first two months of this year, up 27 percent on the same period last year, the EU border control agency, Frontex, noted.

Some 2,200 of the attempts occurred in the central Mediterranean, near Libya, mostly by people from Bangladesh, Algeria, and Ivory Coast.

More than 7,000 occurred in the eastern Mediterranean, near Greece, mostly by people from Afghanistan, Syria, and Turkey - not counting the new exodus that occurred on 1 March when Turkey gave migrants a green light to cross.

The western Mediterranean, near Spain, saw 2,300 attempts, mostly by Algerians.

And the Western Balkan route saw figures double from last year to 3,800, mostly by people from Syria and Afghanistan.

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