Sunday

24th Oct 2021

Amnesty demands criminal probe into Malta's push-backs

  • The Maersk Etienne (pictured here in 2015) is currently hosting 27 rescued migrants off the Maltese coast (Photo: MakVik)

A criminal investigation into Malta's treatment of migrants and refugees is now being demanded by international NGO Amnesty International.

The Mediterranean island state, over the past few months, has seen a rise in the number of people rescued at sea and brought to its shores. Some 2,100 arrived over the past six months, compared to 3,400 in all of 2019.

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Meanwhile, the government under prime minister Robert Abela has been accused of sanctioning push backs to Libya, an illegal practice of forcing people to return to areas they fled.

"Malta seems to have really escalated the level of unlawfulness," said Elisa De Pieri, regional researcher at Amnesty International.

Speaking to EUobserver on Monday (7 September), De Pieri said there is a major lack of accountability on the island-nation, which is around 300 nautical miles from Libya.

"For us the main problem is that there needs to be accountability, there needs an investigation that is independent and impartial, a criminal investigation," she said.

A well-documented incident at Easter saw 51 people, including seven women and three children, pushed back to Libya on a fishing boat that had been docked in Malta.

Five people were found dead by the time it arrived in Libya and survivors say another seven went missing.

That incident sparked a magistrate inquiry in Malta - but Amnesty says the probe has failed to deliver any meaningful results.

"This investigation needs to happen and it needs to happen not just for the push-backs, but also for the detention of about 425 people at sea that we saw in May and June," said De Pieri.

Her comments came ahead of a new 36-page report by Amnesty on Tuesday (8 September), which details Malta's treatment of migrants during the first half of 2020.

It says Malta's unlawful practices are a byproduct of a European Union that has prioritised reducing migrant arrivals.

The EU, alongside Italy and Malta, have been cooperating with the Libyan Coast Guard and other Libyan ministries to prevent people from leaving the country.

The European Commission has long maintained that this is part of a bigger scheme to stop migrant-smuggling.

But the human consequences of such an approach appear to have resulted in more misery as EU states broadly refuse to coordinate any real proposal to help people in distress at sea.

Maersk Etienne

NGO charity boats and commercial shipping vessels are instead left to carry out rescues at sea - while at the same time then facing fines and sanctions by EU member states.

The latest incident revolves around the Danish-flagged Maersk Etienne, which had picked up 27 people from a raft in the Mediterranean over a month ago.

Not a single EU member state has come forward to offer a safe port of disembarkation, amid an outcry from rights groups.

Numerous other standoffs on charity boats run by NGOs since 2018 have resulted in similar tensions, where people on board may require medical attention.

Others have thrown themselves in the water out of acts of desperation.

Three of the rescued migrants jumped off the Maersk Etienne on Sunday (6 September).

"A commercial vessel is not a safe environment for these vulnerable people and they must be immediately brought to a safe port," said a group of UN agencies in a joint statement on Monday (7 September).

Charity groups and NGOs are hoping that a long-awaited new EU pact on migration and asylum, set to be published this month, may offer some response to stem the stand-offs.

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.

Libyan militia cash in on EU's anti-smuggling strategy

More people in Libya are being inducted into slavery as people-traffickers try to monetise their investment by selling them. A senior UN refugee agency official described it as an unintended side effect of the reduction of migrant boat departures.

New EU migration pact set for start of summer

The new EU pact on migration is set for publication sometime in June. Final tweaks are still underway as commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson says she remains cautiously optimistic on finding a solution to the most pressing issues.

Frontex refuses to investigate pushbacks, despite EU demand

The European Commission says Frontex, the EU's border agency, has an obligation to investigate allegations that its vessels participated in illegal pushbacks of migrants off the Greek coast. Asked if it would, Frontex said it rejected the allegations.

EU states want more Belarus sanctions

EU heads of state and government on Friday, at a summit in Brussels, demanded more sanctions against Belarus "as a matter of urgency" and want the European Commission to tweak rules governing borders to tackle "state-sponsored smuggling".

Analysis

Commissions's new migration pact still seeking 'landing zone'

Last October, the European Commission gave an optimistic outlook on the adoption of its migration and asylum pact. EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas said its pact on migration was lowering the landing gear - suggesting agreement was possible.

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