Left alone by the EU, but no excuse to breach human rights

While Malta has to slam its fists on the table of European leaders to get them to assume responsibility, we cannot breach international and human rights laws ourselves

When it comes to migration, Malta is stuck in a game of realpolitik which has, as its consequence, the lives of human beings stuck in limbo in the Mediterranean graveyard.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the ports of larger nations with greater seafaring capability, the European Union seems to be unable to ensure the safe passage of asylum seekers along its southern border: its soft power crumbling with- in a matter of weeks, after having first suspended Operation Sofia, and now launching Operation Irini to stop weapons smuggling to Libya.

The former was aimed also, in part, at funding and training the Libyan coastguard; while also justifying the return of rescued migrants to Libya, despite countless warnings of human rights violations in that country.

But with Libya now torn apart by civil conflict, it is patently clear that the country can no longer be deemed a ‘safe port’; which implies that any continuation of Operation Sofia – or any pushback to Libya, by any country (including Malta) – would be a case of ‘refoulement’, and therefore run counter to international law.

As a result, Malta has been left without options, it seems; but at the same time, this does not justify the very dangerous course of action it has chosen to take: effectively ‘suspending’ its international obligations to save lives at sea inside its own Search and Rescue Zone (SAR).

There are also contradictions in Malta’s cur- rent immigration policy. First, the government launched a tirade against migrant rescue NGOs that were using private vessels saving lives on the high seas, going as far as to declare the Maltese ports closed to them due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, as it heralds the success of its COVID healthcare strategy, it is itself using private commercial boats to push back migrants to war-torn Libya – which is, as already indicated, a sanctionable act of refoulement.

The latest strategy is to keep migrants firmly outside our SAR, on board a Maltese tourist ferry boat of the ‘Captain Morgan’ line. That the company ownership itself is quite partial to the Labour government, might explain why the pleasure-craft is now ferrying people seeking asylum out of reach of international protection.

It is quite a turn-up for the books, when one

considers the mixed messages that emanate from the Maltese government: the COVID emergency first prompted the denigration of migrant rescue NGOs, but now that the government lauds its comeback strategy with low infection rates, it is the Maltese State that is using private boats to keep asylum seeker stranded on the high seas.

The only difference is that, while NGOs were trying to save lives... the intention here is to render them unable to claim asylum in Europe: which is their international human right, recognised by both the European and UN Conventions.

Adding to the irony is the fact that a vessel that ferries tourists - such an integral part of Malta’s fabled hospitality - has been turned into a vessel to keep out ‘unwanted people’.

It indeed confirms the worst aspect of Malta’s policymakers: that they see migrants as non-tourists – that is, ‘not money’ or ‘un-tourists’ and therefore unwelcome – somewhat justifying what is turning out to be a violation of basic fundamental human rights.

The reality is that this tactic could also put the Maltese government in danger of criminal liability in a repetition of the Hirsi judgement, if not within our own jurisdiction, then in the international courts.

Additionally, the involvement of Neville Gafà - a former OPM official and vocal supporter of the GNA government force - shows that Malta retains an unofficial diplomatic link to militias who exert influence on the smuggling of migrants to sea.

Again, the Maltese government walks on the fringes of international politics. Because of the realpolitik situation, mandated by the EU’s unacceptable absence on this matter, Maltese politicians seem inclined to rationalise that the absence of a common solution therefore permits the deconstruction of human rights laws.

But that slope is a slippery one indeed; and invoked against the backdrop of the COVID-19 emergency, it could be the start of a general scaling-back of other human and civil rights, that might need ‘curtailing’ in the convenient discourse of an emergency.

So, while Malta clearly has to slam its fists on the table of European leaders, to get them to finally assume responsibility for this sensitive issue... we cannot use the EU’s absence as a pretext to breach international and human rights laws ourselves.