Over 20 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have called on the prime minister to ensure that all persons within Malta’s responsibility were rescued and their safety guaranteed.
“The nation cannot quietly celebrate Easter while men, women and children are drowning on our doorstep. Saving lives and ensuring their disembarkation at a safe place is a fundamental legal obligation and also a moral imperative that can in no way be negotiated or renounced,” the NGOs said.
In a fresh statement on Sunday, they said their message that “Malta must revoke its decision to close its ports to persons rescued at sea, whoever they are”.
The signatories include Aditus, Jesuit Refugee Service, SOS Malta, KOPIN, the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, Moviment Graffitti, the People for Change Foundation, several migrant associations as well as the Dean’s Office.
They were reacting to reports of vessels at sea with over 100 migrants in need of rescue. Earlier, The Times of Malta reported that one of the boats adrift in Malta’s search and rescue zone was taking in water with those on board in dire need of help. Other media referred to deaths after a boat capsized, but these reports have so far not been confirmed.
Alarm Phone, described as a “hotline for refugees in distress at sea”, posted a message on social media saying that a boat of 47 migrants in distress had run out of fuel and had been drifting in Malta’s search and rescue zone for more than two days.
🆘 47 people in distress in Maltese SAR!
Last night 47 in distress people alerted us. We immediately informed authorities at 22:59CEST. The people are still at sea and need urgently to be rescued. @Armed_Forces_MT: Sea-rescue is your duty! Don't let them drown! #LeaveNoOneBehind pic.twitter.com/maQOShxDUk
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) April 11, 2020
Last week, the same organisations said that while they understood the “enormous challenges” that Malta was facing to secure public health, they were “shocked” at the announcement that the country’s ports were closed to persons rescued at sea.
“This will result in either people stranded out at sea for days, possibly weeks, or in their return to Libya, where they will probably face atrocious human rights violations. It is unacceptable for Malta to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to shelve its human rights obligations and endanger the lives of men, women and children.”
There are minimum standards that must always be met, a threshold that no State is ever permitted cross, the NGOs said, warning that Malta should not exploit the public health emergency to adopt measures veiled as public health protection but having the effect of “sacrificing migrants for Malta’s safety”.
A public health emergency does not allow Malta to abandon people out at sea as it does not exonerate Malta from its responsibility to ensure that rescued persons are not returned to Libya, the NGOs stressed. They said the nation’s safety may be guaranteed through safe disembarkation and shelter measures.
“Migrants are also being detained in breach of their fundamental human rights, the public health emergency further strengthening a detention regime that was last year declared to be illegal by Malta’s Courts.”
The organisations said the government’s approach was “unlawful and despicable“. National emergencies, they said, should be overcome with solidarity and compassion.