Detainees held on Captain Morgan, Supreme boats sue government for human rights breach

32 asylum seekers held aboard tourist boats after being rescued at sea in the Maltese search and rescue region sue government claiming their detention was breach of their fundamental rights

32 asylum seekers, who had been held on board tourist boats after being rescued at sea in the Maltese search and rescue region in April 2020, have sued the government in a constitutional case claiming their detention onboard commercial pleasure craft constituted a breach of their fundamental rights.

The case dates back to 2020 when the government had chartered four commercial sightseeing boats from Captain Morgan and used them to detain asylum seekers who were rescued in the Maltese search and rescue region.

In total, 57 individuals had been rescued by the Libyan-flagged fishing vessel Dar al-Salaam, which was itself involved in a separate pushback to Libya. In a coordinated government operation, the group of migrants were transferred to the Captain Morgan vessel around 13 nautical miles off the coast.

The operation came at a time when both Malta and Italy had closed their ports to migrant rescues citing the coronavirus outbreak. Malta had claimed that sea rescue was not possible due to its limited resources, prohibiting the humanitarian ships from entering port.

The applicants, hailing from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Liberia and Bangladesh among others, described the events to the court.

The group was part of a larger group of asylum seekers who had fled their countries of origin, using Libya as a springboard to travel to Europe. They left Libya between April and June 2020 on small, rickety sea craft which was not seaworthy. Encountering adverse weather conditions and engine failure, they had requested assistance from inside the Maltese search and rescue region.

The Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Home Affairs had coordinated their rescue and transferred the migrants to private vessels. Around 400 asylum seekers were transferred on to the three government-chartered boats, where they were detained just outside Maltese territorial waters.

The lawyers pointed out that the tourist boats remained under the control of the Maltese state despite being outside territorial waters.

They said that the applicants, despite having spent weeks on the vessels, were never officially informed as to why they were being detained and to the government's plans in their regard.

"They were never informed about their right to seek asylum, they were never given a Detention Order, and no one ever explained their rights to seek redress. The applicants recall that the captains had asked them to which EU member state they wanted to relocate themselves, as according to the captain, this was the government's plan," the application reads.

Whilst they were being detained offshore, the asylum seekers had no means to contact their relatives or friends. The ships' WIFI would occasionally be switched on, they said, but the connection was unstable. Furthermore, the applicants had no access to information or to seek legal advice and could not request asylum or ask a court or tribunal to review the decisions being taken.

The lawyers had asked permission to see the boats but were denied access. Media reports say that the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS) was also denied access, together with UNHCR officers.

"The applicants were deprived of their liberty and had no idea of their fate nor did they have any idea on how many days they would be detained at sea," said the lawyers, adding that one of the applicants had described the vessel as a "floating prison".

Around four hundred asylum seekers were packed on the tourist boats and were given a soap bar, toothbrush and toothpaste, while some of them were given a change of clothes. The boats are not equipped to accommodate so many people for such a long period of time. Sanitary facilities were also lacking, as were beds. The applicants were constrained to sleep on the floor before they were given inflatable mattresses later on.

One of the applicants had needed medical assistance, but there was no medical team to assist him. He was only seen by a doctor around ten days later.

The last three days of their detention was particularly traumatic for the migrants as the boats encountered adverse weather conditions with overflowing toilets and migrants bailing out water from the boats.

On 6 June, the government had announced that the migrants on board the tourist's vessels would be brought to Malta. Some 425 migrants were disembarked in Malta, 37 days after Europa II had been deployed. They were then placed in detention.

The applicants argued that their detention on board Captain Morgan and Supreme Cruises tourist boats had not been carried out in good faith.

"Although the captains collected the applicants' personal details, it seems that this was done for the applicants' relocation rather than following some asylum or migration policy."

Furthermore, the boats used lacked the necessary licence for such operations.

In the case, filed against the prime minister, the home affairs minister and the state advocate, before the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional Jurisdiction, the applicants claimed that their fundamental human rights had been breached especially their right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and their right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment. They also sued for damages relating to the violation of their fundamental human rights.

In their list of witnesses, they have named Prime Minister Robert Abela, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, the Principal Immigration Officer, the applicants themselves, the Superintendent of Public Health, AWAS CEO, a Red Cross representative a Transport Malta representative, among others.

The application was signed by aditus Foundation director and human rights lawyer Neil Falzon, aditus Foundation assistant director Carla Camilleri, aditus lawyer Mireille Boffa, lawyer and JRS director Katrine Camilleri, and lawyer Cedric Mifsud.

READ MORE: From tourist ferries to water prisons: AFM keeps press away from Captain Morgan boats