Strasbourg blocks pushbacks - how it happened [video]
NGOs file injunction against pushbacks, courts stop government flights to Mitiga airport for forced repatriation of asylum seekers.
9 July 2013, 12:00am
Last updated at 7pm on Tuesday, 9 July 2013.
The European Court of Human Rights has issued an interim order to block a government pushback of 45 migrants after NGOs filed a prohibitory application.
The ECHR issued interim measures to stop the pushback, lawyer Michael Camilleri said, as NGOs gathered outside the police general headquarters in Floriana. "We still have to see what the decree is, but the Maltese government is prohibited from sending these migrants to Libya."
The Prime Minister today told the House that over 1,000 crossings had taken place in the Mediterranean in one day, saying the situation was "a grave one" which was not being given enough attention by the European Commission.
"People thought we were bluffing. The test happened earlier this morning when a new boat came in. We examined the options we had before us... today there was no mention of illegal immigration on the Council of Ministers' agenda. The Commission then said it was ready to discuss offering Malta more assistance as new came in that we were considering all options. I'd say that this was a concrete example that our position has reaped the necessary results," Muscat told MPs.
The prime minister also said that he had held talks with the Libyan government, and that all arrangements for a pushback had been finalised. "In the meantime we have learnt of an application to the European Court of Human Rights by NGOs, to stop a decision that the Maltese government had not taken yet."
Muscat said his decision to finalise preparations for a pushback was a sign that his government had "stood up to be counted".
"I carry this responsibility myself... but so must those who stop this government from securing the national interest," Muscat said, in an obvious reference to the NGOs' application to the ECHR.
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil condemned what he termed was a "shocking" declaration by the prime minister. "The concept of sending back people seeking protection is objectionable morally, legally and politically."
"I cannot understand how the prime minister today can sleep after declaring what he said today. How can government members have a clean conscience about what has taken place today. The last time we sent Air Malta to Libya in these circumstances was to save people. What legal advice did the prime minister take before deciding on this pushback, and whether he is aware of the Hirsi judgement in the European Court, which lays down that stopping people from applying from protection is against fundamental human rights."
Busuttil upped the ante, as he told Muscat that his actions were "not in our name", hitting out at Muscat's decision to carry out a pushback that had been stopped by an interim measure from the European Court. "What guarantee do we have that this government will be humane to its own people, if it cannot be humane with members of humanity. The Opposition will not be an accomplice to a government that breaches human rights and tarnishes our reputation in Europe."
The government's pushbacks were also met by an appeal from the Bishops of Malta, calling on the government to find "all legitimate means with which to share the burden".
"We appeal to the civil authorities to safeguard the dignity of every human bring that arrives to our shores, and respect our international obligations and implement a policy of hospitality."
Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi joined the fray, saying Muscat's failing was a shame that had to be borne by the entire nation. "This decision is not one taken by the prime minister alone. It is a decision that affects us as a nation... have we arrived to a situation where it has to be an international court to condemn us, albeit temporarily, to order the Maltese government to stop this decision the prime minister has taken? I am ashamed... we should be taking decisions according to what is morally, and ethically right."
In a statement, international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch said it was shocking to see the Maltese government considering to summarily return Somalis to Libya. "Libya is a place where migrants risk arbitrary arrest, ill treatment and forced labour," HRW deputy director Benjamin Ward said. "Now that the European Court of Human Rights has intervened to temporarily halt the returns, the authorities should grant non-governmental organizations immediate access and carefully consider the protection needs of each migrant."
News of Malta's intention to push back a group of 45 migrants was greeted with concern by European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.
"I would like to stress that according to EU and international obligations, all people arriving in the EU territory are entitled to file an asylum request and to have a proper assessment of their situation. Any return operation has to respect in full these obligations and in particular the principle of non-refoulement inscribed in the EU law and in the International Conventions," Malmstrom said.
The European Commission said it would use all the tools at its disposal to make sure member states fully respect their obligations. "We also stand ready to increase our support to Malta if it should face growing migratory pressure. Should Maltese authorities ask for it, we are ready to engage in discussions on further measures, be it financial support or assistance through the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Frontex."
Two Air Malta flights for Mitiga to return an unspecified number of migrants back to Libya have been scheduled for tonight, MaltaToday confirmed earlier on.
The flights will carry a total of 90 police officers and 45 migrants who were denied the right to seek asylum in Malta.
An airline source said Air Malta was holding security meetings with pilots on arrangements for the flights. One plane will take two trips to Mitiga, carrying a total of 90 police officers, because there must be two police escorts for each migrant being deported to Libya.
It is still not confirmed how many of the the 102 migrants who reached Malta by boat this morning will be sent back to Libya.
The Commissioner of Police has refused to give members of NGOs Integra, Aditus Foundation, the Emigrants Commission and the Jesuit Refugee Service access to the migrants being currently held at the general headquarters of the police.
United Nations High Commission for Refugees coordinator Jon Hoisaeter was also refused access.
But Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil has told the press that his party will be opposing any concept of pushback of asylum seekers.
"This is a very preoccupying situation. I expect the prime minister to honour all international obligations at law, when faced with such an emergency."
The 102 migrants were spotted 1.5 nautical miles away from Delimara point shortly after 3am. The group consisted of 59 men, 41 women and two infants.
Alternattiva Demokratika's deputy chairperson, Carmel Cacopardo, accused Joseph Muscat of damaging Malta's interest by going against Malta's international obligations. "If Muscat has a backbone, he should return the millions of euros Malta recieved in refugee funds from the EU. Muscat's hot air is aimed at playing with people's emotions, by painting a picture of crisis and using the week for his political and populist reasons."
This was the second arrival in a couple of days, after almost 300 immigrants were brought to Malta last Thursday.
All migrants who reached Malta this morning are Somali, making them entitled to humanitarian protection.
According to international obligations and national law every migrant arriving in Malta has the right to apply for asylum and all persons have up to two months to apply with the Office of the Refugee Commission.
Although not every migrant qualifies for asylum or is granted protection, the Refugee Commissioner can recommend two types of protection; refugee status or subsidiary protection.
A Temporary Humanitarian Protection can be granted in "special and extraordinary cases."
Once the request for asylum arrives to the Refugee Commissioner, the applicant officially becomes an asylum seeker.
If the applicant is considered to be from a 'safe country of origin' then the application is refused, however, the applicant has up to seven days to contest the decision.
Asylum seekers are usually interviewed on a first-come-first served basis and the interview might be held within a week or months from the submission of the application, depending on the number of pending cases.
If asylum is refused, asylum seekers have up to 14 days to appeal the decision of the Refugee Commissioner.
Miriam Dalli graduated in communications studies from the University of ...
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