In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister of Malta, Robert Abela, published today, the Commissioner urges the Maltese government to fully meet its human rights obligations towards migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, who cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
“In accordance with their obligations under international maritime and human rights law, the Maltese authorities should respond effectively and urgently to any situation of distress at sea of which they become aware”, she writes. She also urges them to investigate and address all credible allegations of delay or non-response to any such situation.
Noting that Libya cannot be considered a place of safety, the Commissioner calls on Malta’s government to refrain from any action that would result in the return to and disembarkation in Libya of persons rescued or intercepted at sea. This also includes refraining from issuing instructions to private vessels to disembark rescued persons in Libya, and not handing over responsibility to the Libyan Coast Guard or related entities when the foreseeable consequence of this would be disembarkation in Libya. In addition, she urges the government to ensure full accountability for situations in which action by the Maltese authorities has directly or indirectly led to such returns.
While acknowledging the challenges - now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic - that sea crossings and arrivals have posed for Malta for a considerable time, she reiterates that such challenges cannot negate clear obligations to save lives at sea and to ensure prompt and safe disembarkation.
The Commissioner stresses that she will continue to call for more solidarity from Council of Europe member states with those countries, like Malta, which are on the frontline of migration movements to Europe, and for better co-operation to ensure the effective preservation of life and the protection of the human rights of those at sea, including through responsibility sharing for adequate search and rescue capacity and the timely disembarkation of those rescued. She also underlines the need to ensure that humanitarian considerations always take priority over disagreements between member states about disembarkation.
Referring to her Recommendation ‘Lives saved. Rights protected. Bridging the protection gap for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean’, the Commissioner stresses the need for all Council of Europe member states, including Malta, to seek constructive co-operation with civil society, especially NGOs that engage in search and rescue activities and those that monitor and defend the human rights of migrants at sea. “It is crucial that states refrain from criminalising, stigmatising or otherwise harassing human rights defenders, and that they ensure an enabling environment for their work”, she writes.