Malta accused of delegating migrant rescue operation to Libyan coastguard

NGO which relayed rescue coordinates to Malta rescue coordination centre claims Libyans were allowed to take back migrants to detention in Libya

Still from footage of the men and women rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard and transferred to Triq Al Sekka immigration centre
Still from footage of the men and women rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard and transferred to Triq Al Sekka immigration centre

An NGO which relays emergency calls from boats in distress to government rescue centres has accused Malta of allowing Libyan coastguards to intervene and take back refugees and migrants to Libya.

WatchTheMed Alarm Phone accused Malta’s rescue centre of violating international search and rescue and human rights rules by failing to assist a boat in distress despite being repeatedly informed of the situation by the NGO.

On 18 October 2019, the Alarm Phone was contacted by an overcrowded boat in distress, carrying approximately 50 migrants who fled from Libya and were in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone.

After contacting again the RCC Malta seven hours later at 9:30pm to communicate updated GPS positions, Malta said the Libyan coastguard had intercepted the boat from within the Maltese SAR zone.

Still from footage of the men and women rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard and transferred to Triq Al Sekka immigration centre
Still from footage of the men and women rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard and transferred to Triq Al Sekka immigration centre

“While Malta was monitoring the boat in distress with air assets, the Armed Forces of Malta were not sent to rescue the boat in distress. Instead, the Maltese authorities waited for the so-called Libyan coastguards to enter the Maltese SAR zone, to intercept the group of migrants in distress, and to return them to the place they had escaped from – Libya,” the NGO said.

The NGO also said the closest port to the rescue location would have been Lampedusa (41nm), but the so-called Libyan coastguard brought them back to Tripoli, where it then transported them to the Triq al Sikka detention centre, which is well known for its inhumane condition and the grave human rights violations that occur there.

Alarm Phone accused Malta of failing to carry out a SAR operation, and instead monitored the situation with a helicopter and then delegating the operation to Libya.

“SAR conventions establish that a SAR operation needs to be completed by bringing people to a place of safety. As the rescue took place in the Maltese SAR zone, by failing to instruct the so-called Libyan coastguard to bring the rescued people to the closest port of safety, RCC Malta violated SAR conventions as well as Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and Article 33 of The Convention relating to the International Status of Refugees,” the NGO said.

If found to be true, Malta would also be complicit in the violation of the principle of non-refoulement – the international rule preventing the return of people fleeing persecution and harm to the place they are escaping from.

“The principle of non-refoulement has applicability also outside of a state territory. If a state exercises control over a zone, then it holds responsibility. In this case, Malta was responsible: The SAR event took place within the Maltese SAR zone, RCC Malta had been alerted to the boat in distress, and Malta was actively monitoring the distress situation. RCC Malta were fully aware of the distress situation but failed to carry out a SAR operation. Malta did so in order to allow Libya to intervene many hours later,” the NGO said.

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