No ‘secret deals’ over human rights

Malta needs reassurance that it is not contravening international law, and committing human rights violations, through ‘secret deals’ with other countries that may endanger human life and dignity

According to recent media reports, Malta entered into an alleged ‘secret deal’ with Libya on migration, in order to return fleeing asylum seekers to a country with an execrable track record of human rights violations, in particular where migrants are concerned.

News reports about this deal strike a disquieting tone: “We reached what you could call an understanding with the Libyans,” an unnamed government source told the press, “When there is a vessel heading towards our waters, the AFM coordinates with the Libyans who pick them up and take them back to Libya before they come into our waters and become our responsibility,” the source said.

The government source went on to say that had the agreement not been reached, the island would have been “drowning in migrants”. However, there was no mention of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, as a direct result of Europe’s failed migration policies.

If Malta has really carried out such a secret deal, it would be tantamount to a form of delegated refoulement of asylum seekers and refugees to the same country from where they are escaping.

This raises the highly contentious issue as to whether such an action is indeed illegal, as sending back asylum seekers to the place they are running from is illegal in terms of international law.

There was, however, little surprise at the actions of an EU country attempting to use the Libyan government and its militias as gatekeepers to the migratory flow.

The EU already funds the Libyan coastguard and finances this effort alone, while Italy itself has been funding an anti-migrant deal: under which the Libyan coastguard stops sends ‘rescued’ passengers back to the north African country, where they may face torture and abuse.

Well before that, Silvio Berlusconi’s government funded Gaddafi in a bid to take back migrants rescued by Italian coastguards, in what was a clear breach of international law, also ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

With the EU abdicating its role to patrol the Mediterranean beyond its immediate borders after Operations Mare Nostrum and Sofia, its own member states have attempted to make it harder for migrant charities and rescue NGOs from carrying out the rescue of asylum seekers in international wars: either through standoffs just outside territorial waters; or else, as seen recently in a video published by Sea-Eye, by allowing Libyan militias with gunboats to interfere with a rescue.

All this must be seen in the context of Libya’s worsening security issues.

It has been eight years since the NATO-led military intervention in Libya, but the country today stands further from peace than ever. Since April 2019, battles between the UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army have raged in Tripoli. By the end of July, an estimated 1,100 people had been killed and a further 104,000 displaced.

In early July, an airstrike on Tajoura migrant detention centre near the Libyan capital Tripoli reportedly killed more than 50 civilians and injured 130. Amnesty International’s warnings were ignored and 610 migrants were trapped in Tajoura when a bomb struck. Post-intervention Libya has faced political and economic collapse, with 7,578 violent deaths recorded between 2012 and 2018. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and weapons have spread across the region.

This is the place where these people are escaping from.

There is, however, the local political context to take into account also. By the same publication of alleged ‘migrant deals’, the Labour government stands to gain by surreptitiously showing off its muscle with voters: who, as recent MaltaToday surveys show, have viewed migration with alarming concern since a riot that happened inside an open reception centre in Hal Far.

As prime minister, Muscat can only put forward the face of a statesman, eager to advance the perception that Malta cannot cope with a migrant influx to win important concessions of solidarity and responsibility-sharing from other EU countries.

To be fair, Muscat has used his charisma and influence in situations where racist violence and hate had to be tackled head-on. His public pronouncements – in the wake of the Hal Far riots, but also in light of Lassana Cisse Souleymane’s murder in April – were rightly measured in the face of growing racism and xenophobia.

Today, the PM should be putting that influence to good use in the wake of the MaltaToday survey.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the Labour government would be pleased to have its silence on the alleged Libyan migrant deal play on, for it gives its own supporters the impression that it is carrying out a game of subterfuge to stop migrants from leaving Libya.

Of course, such games are puerile attempts at manipulating public opinion when a responsible government is duty-bound to fully communicate its international obligations on human rights.

But whatever mistakes were made in the past – and whatever the popular mood regarding immigration  – Malta needs reassurance that it is not contravening international law, and committing human rights violations, through ‘secret deals’ with other countries that may endanger human life and dignity.

After all, there can be no backroom deals when it comes to human rights.