Open the ports and save boat migrants: 300 academics call on Malta and the EU to act

COVID-19 kills solidarity between member states: academics demand action from the EU

File photo of migrant boat rescue by Maltese armed forces
File photo of migrant boat rescue by Maltese armed forces

Over 300 academics from the University of Malta and other European universities have called upon Malta and the European Union to open their ports for the safe disembarkation of asylum seekers and refugees stranded at sea, and assume shared responsibility for their fates.

The statement comes as Italy and Malta shut off their ports to migrant rescue charities, like the Sea-Eye and its ship ‘Alan Kurdi’, and fended off accusations of refusing to succour boats in distress.

“Refugees and migrants continue to cross the Mediterranean Sea in their desperate effort to reach security and refuge. The practice of leaving boats in distress and relinquishing all responsibility has become the norm. Whilst we appreciate the particular challenges individual Member States are facing during these challenging times, the situation neither justifies nor excuses the violation of human rights.

“The decision to close ports is unlawful. The absence of solidarity between the Member States in meeting their collective moral and legal obligations is reprehensible,” the academics said.

Their statement came just after Malta’s foreign minister Evarist Bartolo justified Malta’s decision not to divert resources currently fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and instead demand a €100 million humanitarian mission from the EU to assist Libya in fighting the pandemic and prevent the departure of boat migrants.

Libya’s coasts are controlled by militia factions loyal to the UN-backed GNA, and other elements of the warring Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar. But the country remains in chaos amid the civil conflict.

“Detention camps are full, and, according to credible reports, thousands of migrants are fleeing or have been given permission to leave the camps. This provides all the ingredients for a major humanitarian disaster… Within the context of a need for migrant rescue which will only grow bigger, and considering our resources being focused elsewhere, we are facing a disaster. The only way of preventing such a humanitarian disaster is for there to be an EU humanitarian mission in Libya giving medical provisions to Libyans and migrants,” Bartolo said on Monday.

But Malta has also accused migrant rescue charities of abetting human traffickers, by picking up migrants sent out at sea, a statement which has been criticised by activists and academics.

Womens’ rights activist and lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic lambasted the Maltese proposal to pump EU money into Libya. “Countless reports show migrants are kept in appalling situations and subjected to torture. Libya is not party to international conventions and is run by militias… perhaps the government needs a lecture on human trafficking: there is a clear distinction between smuggling and trafficking of persons. Until you have concrete evidence of NGOs partaking in trafficking (or smuggling), refrain from using the word at all and furthermore from making allegations without evidence. If you do have evidence, then by all means proceed with criminal action. Until then you will be the one that is participating in trafficking of human beings by literally financing Libyan warlords.”

The academic and women’s rights activists Andrea Dibben also warned of the dangerous rhetoric that was attacking NGOs rescuing people at sea by vilifying them as traffickers. “People still cross irrespective of the presence of rescue ships. The only difference is that without the NGOs many more would drown and perish in the bottom of the sea,” she said, citing studies from Oxford and Manchester universities that there was no correlation between the likelihood of migrants attempting the crossing, and the chance of them being rescued. “Push and pull factors of migration are far more complex than what politicians like to paint them.”

The government’s stance comes in the way of a rise in anti-migrant sentiment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after the head of Malta’s own social welfare agency (FSWS), Alfred Grixti, a long-time Labour Party activist, suggested that migrant rescue ships should be seized and scuttled.

“So unbecoming of an FSWS chairperson whose role is to provide services that care for the needy and vulnerable,” commented Alternattiva Demokratika representative Mario Mallia. “What’s next? Suggesting we scuttle police cars because they bring victims of domestic violence to shelters? Or perhaps round up social workers who care for the downtrodden lest they knock on the doors at Appogg? Or perhaps cut the telephone lines for 179? I don’t think so.  But if not, does this mean that there are categories of vulnerable we should not be concerned with? Or perhaps that there are vulnerable people more worth saving than others? Is good sense and solidarity on lockdown?”