Malta asylum seeker disembarkation deal shows ‘more humane approach is possible’

Amnesty International says new mechanism will assist Malta with pressures on asylum but still demands end to arbitrary detention of migrants

A rescue of a child migrant at by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, one of the NGOs which formerly patrolled the Mediterranean sea
A rescue of a child migrant at by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, one of the NGOs which formerly patrolled the Mediterranean sea

An agreement reached in Valletta on Monday on a temporary mechanism for disembarking people rescued in the Central Mediterranean was seen as a positive step for protecting the rights of refugees and migrants, Amnesty International said.

The agreement was announced by the home affairs ministers of France, Germany, Italy and Malta, and representatives of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the European Commission.

“Details of the agreement are still to be disclosed, but we expect it to lead to the establishment of a reliable system to ensure that people rescued in the Central Mediterranean are promptly and safely disembarked in Europe and that EU countries step up and share responsibility for them,” said Eve Geddie, Director of the European Institutions Office at Amnesty International.

The talks came after the new Italian government tried to take a different tack, in the wake of former interior minister Matteo Salvini decision to close his country’s ports to NGO vessels that rescued migrants in the Mediterranean.

Rescue vessels are regularly stranded at sea, with Mediterranean countries reluctant to allow migrants in without an agreement with other EU countries that they would take in some of the asylum seekers.

However, the ministers on Monday unveiled little of their agreement’s substance, wanting to present it first to other EU countries.

“We hope this mechanism will put an end to the obscene spectacle of people left stranded on boats for weeks waiting to know where, or even if, they can disembark. Speedier disembarkations are essential for those rescued in the Central Mediterranean who have often already suffered horrific abuse in detention centres in Libya and a perilous sea journey – they are exhausted and in need of protection and care,” Geddie said.

The Malta meeting essentially demanded a formal workaround to existing European Union treaties, which puts heavy burdens on frontline nations like Italy and Malta by requiring that asylum seekers stay where they arrive.

Italy hopes the new agreement will avoid the case-by-case negotiations which have followed standoffs between Italy and aid ships that have left the migrants they carry stranded precariously at sea for days or weeks.

NGOs undertaking search and rescue have faced criminal prosecutions in Italy, the impounding of their vessels in Malta, the imposition of heavy fines and the arrest of their staff for saving lives at sea and trying to disembark them in a safe place.

“Having disembarked a significant number of people this year, without adequately preparing for such scenario, Malta’s reception and asylum system is strained. Hundreds of men, women and children are held in sub-standard conditions. Many of them have been unlawfully detained, as they are held far longer than the maximum period permitted by national law, which is intended only to allow for medical checks on arrival,” Geddie said.

“While we hope the new mechanism will assist Malta with the pressures on its asylum and reception system, Maltese authorities must understand that there is no place nor excuse for arbitrary detention in Malta.”

Malta detains irregular migrants up to a maximum 12 months.

But lawyers and representatives of organizations who regularly visit the detention facilities told Amnesty International that the centres were seriously overcrowded, that separation between adults and children is not ensured, and that conditions are squalid with people having inadequate access to basic necessities such as clean underwear and toiletries.  

“Although limited to people rescued in the Central Mediterranean, the agreement is a sign that European leaders may be finally stepping up to manage migration towards Europe more responsibly and humanely. Now it is paramount that more member states join soon,” Geddie said.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on European governments to set up a predictable disembarkation and relocation mechanism to promptly address the needs of people rescued in the Central Mediterranean.

Maltese authorities did not allow Amnesty International’s researchers present in Malta in September to visit the Initial Reception Centre or its extension at the Safi Barracks, near Luqa, where refugees and migrants are held. “However, they acknowledged that the situation in the centres was challenging due to the insufficient physical space, the number of people disembarked and the lack of resources to process claims,” Amnesty said.

Mandatory relocation of asylum seekers caused a major rift among EU countries at the height of the migrant influx in 2015 when central European countries refused to take in people.

Negotiations to reform the EU’s asylum system had been at a deadlock since, as countries could not agree on a redistribution mechanism.

Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, added that the number of those distributed will be discussed on 8 October, but added that the number of migrants up for relocation will also depend on the participating member states.

Outgoing migration EU commission Dimitris Avramopoulos said the proposal makes good progress towards a “predictable and structural set of temporary arrangements”.