Malta, Italy imperilling people’s lives by closing ports to rescue NGOs, says human rights chief

Council of Europe human rights commissioner says NGOs must be free to use ports for rescue operations and for helping migrants

Dunja Mijatović is the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
Dunja Mijatović is the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

The human rights czar of the Council of Europe has accused European states of turning the rescue of refugees and migrants into “an extremely divisive topic” and said countries closing their ports to rescue NGOs were imperilling people’s lives.

The Commissioner for Human Rights for the CoE – a transnational group of European states that hosts the European Court of Human Rights – Dunja Mijatović, called on European states to put the human rights of migrants and responsibility sharing, at the centre of their migration and asylum policies.

“Whilst states have the right to control their borders and ensure security, this cannot come at the expense of human rights. The recent adoption of European Council conclusions, as well as decisions at national levels, raise a number of concerns that European states must address in order to meet the obligations under international human rights law which they have undertaken to respect,” Mijatović said.

Mijatović praised rescue charities and NGOs and said member states coordinating rescue operations should make full use of the available search and rescue capacities, including that of NGO vessels. “[They] should be free to use ports and other facilities for rescue operations and for helping migrants. Regrettably, a number of Council of Europe member states are hindering the work of NGOs, which imperils the lives of many people.”

Mijatović also said that any proposed holding states outside Europe had to be analysed to avoid breaches of human rights. “Once the implementation of a particular option begins, independent and effective monitoring must take place to assess compliance with human rights norms.”

She said proposals to disembark rescued migrants outside Europe required clear procedures for complaints or judicial review to those who feel their rights are negatively affected. “Any place of disembarkation, whether outside or inside Europe, should provide effective protection against refoulement, in particular by ensuring access to an effective possibility to apply for international protection. This would require the presence of adequately trained staff, the availability of interpreters, access to legal aid, and the possibility for the review of decisions by an independent body.”

Last week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a number of resolutions, which will now follow-up in national parliaments to ensure these principles are put into practice.

“Places of disembarkation must not become centres where people are automatically deprived of their liberty. Any restrictions to their right to liberty should be clearly established in law, necessary and proportionate, taking into account the individual circumstances, with effective alternatives to detention made available in the place of disembarkation.”

Mijatović said these regional solutions should not undermine the right of those who arrive in Europe to lodge an application for asylum. “European states must always refrain from pushing people back across the border without an individualised procedure, because this practice denies them an opportunity to file an asylum application.”

Thousands of people in need of protection have died in their desperate journey to find shelter in Europe, and European states have moral and legal duties to ensure their asylum and migration systems respect international law and human rights conventions.

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