Maltese government to quarantine irregular migrants at sea due to COVID-19

Maltese government issues expression of interest for ships to be used as quarantine facilities for migrants rescued at sea

The Captain Morgan cruise boats were used to prevent migrants from being taken into Maltese waters during the COVID-19 pandemic
The Captain Morgan cruise boats were used to prevent migrants from being taken into Maltese waters during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Maltese government has issued an expression of interest to commission ships that will be used as quarantine facilities of migrants rescued at sea.

66 migrants from a group of 94 who arrived in Malta on Monday have tested positive for COVID-19. A second group of 19 migrants from 33 who disembarked on Wednesday have also tested positive.

“We are working to reduce these arrivals. In the last weeks thousands of migrants departed from Libya and saved in Libyan waters were returned to their point of origin. The government is working on relocation and return of those who are not eligible for protection,” the government said in a statement.

The government said people rescued in Maltese search and rescue zones could not be left to die at sea. “Malta has no choice but to abide by its international and legal obligations.”

The government said it had taken precautions to isolate COVID-19 positive migrants rescued at sea, with the Red Cross operating a clinic at the Hal Far reception centre.

In June, migrants rescued at sea were held offshore on four tourist boats for five weeks before being allowed to disembark in Malta.

The decision came after migrants held indefinitely on the Captain Morgan boat, Europa II, mounted a protest at their detention, as punishing weather and a five-week imprisonment out at sea pushed people to the limits.

The private boats were chartered by the government to hold aboard 425 rescued migrants – a ruse designed to prevent them from claiming asylum in Malta. The migrants aboard the Europa II were rescued at sea between April 30 and May 7. On April 30, the  Maltese government arranged for the transfer  of 57 people rescued the day before by a private fishing vessel to th e Europa II, a 35m tourist ferry boat owned by Captain Morgan Cruises Ltd.

Malta closed its ports to rescued migrants citing the COVID-19 emergency, a decision that followed a similar move by Italy.

But the Maltese government by June had already proclaimed it had “won the war” on the pandemic, after registering its lowest infection rate ever and lifting most of its public health restrictions.

On May 19, a man sent a Facebook post to the non-governmental organization  Alarm Phone, which runs a hotline for boats in distress in the Mediterranean, saying he was on board the  Europa II  and described the increasing despair in the “water prison.”

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Robert Abela, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights had urged the government to fully meet its human rights obligations towards migrants who cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.  “In accordance with their obligations under international maritime and human rights law, the Maltese authorities should respond effectively and urgently to any situation of distress at sea of which they become aware,” Dunja Mijatović wrote.

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