Malta’s migration policy posing ‘significant’ risk to human life, Council of Europe report says

The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner hits out at Malta’s ‘failure’ to assist migrants rescued by NGO ships • Government refutes conclusions

The Council of Europe human rights commissioner says Malta's 'restrictive' disembarkation policies pose 'significant' risks to human rights of migrants
The Council of Europe human rights commissioner says Malta's 'restrictive' disembarkation policies pose 'significant' risks to human rights of migrants

Malta’s failure to assist migrants rescued by NGO ships and its restrictive disembarkation policies, pose “significant” risks to human rights, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner said.

In her country assessment, following a visit to Malta last October, Dunja Mijatovic said the lives of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean was being put at risk.

She commented on Malta’s decreased efforts to engage in search and rescue missions over the past few years, which also contributed to the risks migrants faced.

“The Commissioner calls on the Maltese authorities to ensure adequate rescue capacities in Malta’s search and rescue region, enhance the effective coordination of rescue operations, and effectively investigate any allegations of omissions to provide immediate assistance to persons in distress at sea,” the report said.

It warned that any repetition of the human rights and humanitarian crisis created due to the temporary closure of Malta’s ports in 2020 should be avoided. The closure of ports at the time was attributed to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when a similar stand was taken by Italy.

Mijatovic advised that the authorities should take measures to avoid arbitrary detention of asylum seekers and migrants, invest in alternatives to immigration detention, improve safeguards against the detention of vulnerable persons, and ensure that any detention of children is immediately ended.

“Any detained migrants must be treated with dignity,” the report said.

Government refutes criticism

In its reaction to the findings, government refuted the Commissioner’s remarks that Malta’s policy was restrictive and jeopardised the rights of asylum seekers.

“[Government] considers the remarks that its asylum and immigration policies and practices are ‘restrictive’ and that it ‘continues to jeopardise the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants’ as unfounded and not reflective of the facts,” the government said.

It insisted that Malta remains committed to meeting its international obligations and to safeguard the minimum standards in the humane and safe reception of migrants.

“Malta strongly rebuts any allegations on arbitrary delays in responding to distress calls,” the government insisted. “All notifications received are investigated, assessed, prioritised and actions are taken accordingly.”

Government said that Malta has often ended up assuming more responsibilities on a humanitarian basis than those strictly imposed by the applicable international conventions.

It reiterated that according to international law applicable to Malta, disembarkation of persons rescued at sea should take place at the nearest place of safety.

The government said it was the flag state’s responsibility to coordinate disembarkation in the case of NGO vessels carrying out autonomous migrant interceptions in international waters. “Malta does not agree with the argument that disembarkations by NGO vessels should always be conducted only in Italy and Malta. No other coastal state has ever made available its ports for disembarkation even though the obligation falls squarely on all Member States.”

It also noted that the closure of ports in 2020 was a temporary measure in view of a serious public health emergency, and it was meant to protect all persons living in Malta.