Blood on our hands

Just like the 2003 pushback to Eritrea, carried out by the Nationalist administration, once again the Maltese government has blood on its hands

Few of us would stop to think that our freedom of movement inside the European Union is enshrined as a right subject to few restrictions by virtue of our EU membership; but also, as nationals who choose when to leave the country, as a global right bestowed upon us by international human rights law.

The same right has been emphasised by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRHC), which has variously stated that any restriction on the right to leave a country must be in accordance with the law. That means that any interference with the right to free movement must be proportionate: for example, when someone is seen to be a flight risk due to criminal investigations. This right has also been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in a series of judgments.

It is also a necessary prerequisite to the enjoyment of a number of other human rights: most notably, the right to international protection from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

For unless a person can escape their country and get to another country to seek asylum, they will not even begin to be able to exercise the right to asylum, which is separately enshrined in the UN’s and European human rights conventions.

Whether their claim to international protection is justified or not, is a matter for the authorities of the state where the application is made to decide: not for the state of origin to pre-empt.

And yet, there is now evidence that Malta has actively engaged in an ad hoc, secret pact to externalise what can be defined as a breach of this right. It is just one of the many creative measures that have been employed by EU states – no doubt with the tacit consent of the European bloc – to push out the borders into the countries of origin: like Libya, despite being clearly identified by the United Nations as an unsafe place for people feeling persecution.

The fact that a civil war has been waged there since 2012 seems to be of no consequence to our government. With Joseph Muscat’s blessing, and the active participation of our Armed Forces of Malta, the Maltese state employed the services of a Labour Party activist employed with the OPM, to act as a go-between for the AFM and the Libyan coastguard; apart from maintaining cordial relations with at least one militia leader, despite the fear that many criminal organisations involved in human trafficking in Libya have now been para-militarised, and become active armies in the service of either the GNA or the LNA.

Neville Gafà has spoken proudly of his achievements: that is, providing the Libyan coastguard – which has been funded by the EU’s budget for its further training and professionalisation (and before that, funded to the tune of €5 billion by Italy in the Gaddafi era) – with coordinates of departing boats right before they are able to be intercepted inside Malta’s vast search and rescue region.

This was one of a panoply of measures the EU employed to prevent people from leaving Libya, on the grounds that if these people are allowed to leave they might enter the EU irregularly. Instead of employing the all-too visible and illegal pushback mechanism (it is illegal to send back people fearing for their lives to the country they are escaping from), Malta simply delegated this function to Libya, so that people seeking their right to asylum are not allowed to leave the country.

But while Gafà has justified these actions by pointing towards analogous EU policy – namely, ‘Operation Sofia’ – the fact remains that preventing irregular migrants from disembarking from vessels, or aiding in their forcible return, has been condemned as inconsistent with international human rights law.

Beyond issues of legality, today we also know that Malta engaged in an undisclosed ‘diplomatic’ attempt to prevent people from even being rescued at sea – for Malta has in the past prevented NGO vessels from departing from the island, and even prosecuted a sea captain.

If these people were fleeing from slavery, torture and desperation inside war-torn Libya, Malta and the Muscat administration did its best to prevent them from avoiding this fate.

Just like the 2003 pushback to Eritrea, carried out by the Nationalist administration, once again the Maltese government has blood on its hands.

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