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19th Jan 2022

Malta patrol boat 'intimidates' capsized migrants

  • Still images of video footage showing the incident (Photo: Alarm Phone)

Video of a Maltese patrol boat antagonising people in need of rescue at sea put online last week has added to the growing body of evidence of a government-led effort to curtail sea rescues.

Published on Wednesday (20 May) by Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants in distress, the footage follows recent reports of Malta outsourcing push-backs to Libya via the use of private vessels.

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"This footage is disturbing," said Vincent Cochetel, the UN refugee agency's special envoy for the central Mediterranean, in a tweet.

He said rescues are not just a legal obligation but an "elementary consideration of humanity".

Push-backs, also known as refoulement, involves forcing people seeking protection or help back into areas of conflict where they face death. The practice is illegal.

The latest footage taken on 11 April shows 101 people on a rubber boat with many bobbing in life jackets in the water demanding help.

An Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) boat is seen running its motors at high speed near those in the water, in what appears to be an act of intimidation.

Although those onboard on the rubber boat were eventually rescued and sent to Italy's Sicily, survivors said they had been prevented from entering Maltese waters by several AFM boats.

"According to survivors, AFM officers threatened them and tried to make them turn around and return to Libya. Several people went overboard & were at risk of drowning," said Alarm Phone.

Four boats had left Libya between 10-13 April 2020.

One boat with 47 people on board was left adrift in the Maltese search-and-rescue zone for several days until rescued by a NGO boat on 13 April.

A second boat with 77 people on board arrived in Italy on 13 April. A third boat with 63 people on board was illegally pushed back to Libya on 14/15 April, leaving a dozen dead in the process.

The fourth boat, with 101 people onboard, reached Pozzallo, Sicily on 12 April. The video footage of the AFM links back to this fourth boat, adding further evidence of Maltese tactics to force people back to Libya.

Last month, the New York Times and the Italian daily newspaper Avvenire revealed Malta's government had hired out trawlers Dar Al Salam 1, the Salve Regina and the Tremar to carry out these activities.

Recent voice messages obtained by the Guardian newspaper sheds further light on Maltese government complicity.

The European Commission repeatedly maintains that saving lives at sea is a priority - but stays clear of outright condemning the reports, instead citing the limited scope of EU law.

"EU law can only legally prohibit refoulement within its scope. There are situations where EU law doesn't apply. In these situations, the prohibition of refoulement under EU law also doesn't apply," said a European Commission spokesperson.

Malta does not dispute the video footage of its AFM, but says it is under disproportionate pressure given its small size.

Valletta says not enough EU states are coming forward to help relocate people, noting that since the start of the year it took in 1,222 irregular migrants.

"Until today, only Portugal has pledged to take in a total of six migrants," said Malta, in a government statement.

Deaths at sea case raises questions over Malta's role

Malta's prime minister's office is under scrutiny after allegations it gave instructions for a private vessel to push back a boat of migrants from waters within its zone of responsibility, and back to Libya. At least 12 people died.

EU unable to comment on Italy and Malta port closures

Ports in Italy and Malta closed amid claims they are no longer safe because of the pandemic. The move means NGO rescue vessels are in limbo. The European Commission says it cannot pass any judgement on the closures.

EU mulls new system to check illegal pushbacks of migrants

The European Commission says it may create a new system to monitor push backs by EU states. The announcement follows weeks of dithering by the commission, which has refrained from condemning abuse by Greek and Croat authorities, despite mounting evidence.

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