El Hiblu 3: the fightback against a racist narrative that criminalises migration

When three African boys fled Libya on a crowded rubber boat, the last thing they were expecting was to disembark in handcuffs and be charged for terrorism in Malta

“In the El Hiblu 3 case, three teenagers were imprisoned for translating between a captain and a crew. It’s absurd.”
“In the El Hiblu 3 case, three teenagers were imprisoned for translating between a captain and a crew. It’s absurd.”

When three African boys fled Libya on a crowded rubber boat, later saved by the oil tanker El Hiblu, the last thing they were expecting was to disembark in handcuffs and be charged for terrorism in Malta.

Less so were they expecting to be the subject of a global campaign to have the Maltese authorities dismiss the trial and drop all charges against them.

Jelka Kretzschmar is one of the many people coordinating the Free the El Hiblu 3 campaign, an alliance of accused, survivors and supporters, focused on supporting the three young men in a trial that has now been dragging on for three years.

Indeed, the survivors who were on board the El Hiblu ship with the three young men were only brought to testify two years into the hearings. The three men even spent two weeks in a high security wing in Malta’s prison, and eight months in detention, after which they were released on bail.

Malta has had a long history of deterrence policies, as do many other EU Member States. But in 2019 Malta negotiated an agreement with Libya for the two countries to work together to intercept migrants heading towards Maltese waters.

According to the deal, any intercepted migrants would be returned to Libya – a blatant violation of human rights laws which prohibits the ‘refoulement’ of people fleeing a nation where they fear they will be persecuted.

“Malta has since strengthened its ties to the Libyan authorities, and continues to actively avoid its duty to rescue people from distress at sea,” Kretzschmar says.

In April 2020, Maltese authorities denied support to migrants in distress in Malta’s search and rescue area. Both Malta and Italy had closed their ports to migrant rescues, citing the coronavirus outbreak for their stance. Malta had claimed that sea rescue was not possible due to its limited resources, prohibiting the humanitarian ships from entering port. Government went so far as to charter four commercial sightseeing boats from Captain Morgan and used them to detain the asylum seekers.

Later that year, 27 people stuck in a stand-off on the cargo ship Maersk Etienne were faced by the Maltese government’s refusal to allow disembarkation. Three of the people on the ship eventually jumped overboard.

“These are mere snapshots of a long list of human rights violations,” Kretzschmar said. “By actively pushing back people or letting them die at sea, these countries fail to live up to their responsibilities and actively break the law.”

The journey to Malta is hard enough, but once migrants land on Maltese shores they are often forced into low-paying work and unstable living conditions. One of the most prominent cases of this was that of Lamin Jaiteh, who suffered serious injuries on a construction site and was left on a roadside by his boss, who told the other workers on site not to call an ambulance “unless you want to go to prison”.

“We should also not forget the killing of Lassana Cisse in May 2019,” Kretzschmar said. Cisse was shot at from a passing vehicle while walking along a road in Ħal Far. Shortly after, two soldiers from Malta’s armed forces were arrested for the murder, which prosecutors said was racially motivated. “We need to compare this to how many migrant inhabitants of reception centres are arbitrarily detained for extensive periods, despite the fact that they did not commit any crime.”

People on the move will continue to leave their homes – escaping from poverty, starvation, torture, and slavery – so long as global inequality remains as is, Kretzschmar adds. “It is wrong to believe that walls, deterrence policies, or incarceration on land or at sea would be adequate responses to migrant movements. They only lead to new and more dangerous migration routes, and to more unnecessary deaths and suffering.”

The El Hiblu 3 case is only one example of many across Europe where countries try to criminalise people on the move.

Even Italy has its own version of the El Hiblu case. The tugboat Vos Thalassa rescued over 60 migrants from a sinking wooden boat in 2018, and the commander was ready to head for Lampedusa on the orders of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.

However, the Libyan coastguard called the commander of the Vos Thalassa and ordered him to sail to the African coast and send the migrants off on a Libyan patrol boat.

When someone realised that the ship had changed course, the migrants on board panicked and asked the crew to reverse back to Italy. The commander asked Italian authorities to send military help, and the MRCC in Rome sent a naval unit to the tugboat and brought the migrants to shore.

The migrants aboard were charged with crimes of violence, threats and resistance to public officials, and aggravated aiding and abetting of irregular immigration. However, the Italian High Court ruled that resisting a public official was justified in that the migrants were asserting their right not to be forcibly returned while opposing their return to Libya.

“This is a very important verdict as it confirms that the enforcement of human rights is based on the rules of international law, which ensures the protection of human life and is not a state authority matter,” Kretzschmar said.

Another important ruling is the Hirsi Jamaa case against Italy, brought before the European Court of Justice. This landmark judgement set a precedent by establishing that EU law applies beyond territorial waters but also on the high seas – confirming that returning survivors to Libya breaches the principle of non-refoulement and violates the rights of the people rescued.

“When we look at the games Italy and Malta have been playing for years, leading to so many lives lost, these cases are very relevant to us. These cases are examples of empowerment. In the El Hiblu 3 case, three teenagers were imprisoned for translating between a captain and a crew. It’s absurd.”

There is hope beyond the legal aspect.

Behind the campaign for the El Hiblu 3 is a broad local community fighting for solidarity and equality.

“The more people learn about the case and campaign for the rights of these three boys, the more it counters racist and anti-immigrant sentiments.”

Kretzschmar said Malta immigration policies at sea and on land do not reflect the campaign’s experiences with local communities. “We’re not alone. With us stands a broad alliance that includes the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Archdiocese’s Migrants Commission, and many other local and international groups and NGOs.”

The campaign’s ultimate goal is for the Maltese authorities to drop the charges before a bill of indictment is filed. “We don’t think much about the hypothetical worst-case scenario. We use our energy to prevent a negative outcome. Ultimately, we hope this case can become a symbol against the arbitrary criminalisation of three innocent young men in Malta and the EU.”