Updated with civil society group Repubblika’s announcement on court action against Cabinet
Five migrants on one of the boats stranded in Maltese waters over the past few days have been reported dead in the late afternoon, while the 51 surviving passengers on the vessel were returned to Libya. Another seven are reported missing.
In a statement, 20 local organisations including Aditus, Integra Foundation, Jesuit Refugee Service, Moviment Graffiti and The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation said that they were left “deeply saddened and angered” at the news of the death of migrants at sea and at the “illegal push-back” of the survivors to Libya.
“Malta was legally and morally responsible for protecting the lives of those who requested help whilst in our national waters. Instead, the Government chose to play political games, resulting in needless and cruel loss of life. This is a terrible day for Malta, for human rights and for our nation’s legacy,” they said in the letter.
In a tweet, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the passengers had disembarked in Tripoli earlier on Wednesday after the migrants were rescued by a commercial ship from the Maltese search and rescue zone and handed over to the Libyan coast guard. Migrants told the NGO that another seven individuals were missing.
“We have reason to believe that this is the boat reported missing a few days ago in the Maltese search and rescue zone. All migrants were transferred to detention in Tripoli… We reiterate that people rescued at sea should not be returned to unsafe ports. An alternative to disembarkation in #Libya must be found urgently,” they said.
🚨Breaking: Approximately 47 migrants, intercepted last night remained on the coast guard vessel near Tripoli awaiting a confirmation on disembarkation.
Five bodies were also retrieved.
The migrants just got confirmation to disembark in Tripoli.
— IOM Libya (@IOM_Libya) April 15, 2020
This backlash comes as Malta and Italy declared last week that their ports were closed to migrant disembarkation, citing containment measures of the COVID-19 outbreak as the main reason.
On Monday, the same NGOs launched a campaign against the government’s decision to follow Italy’s footsteps as more than 100 migrants were reportedly out at sea on rescue boats off Malta.
335 Maltese and foreign academics also called on EU member states to assume responsibility, open their ports and help in rescuing migrants who are in distress.
Repubblika initiate court action against Cabinet
Civil Society NGO Repubblika announced on Wednesday evening that it had initiated court action against the whole of Prime Minister Robert Abela’s Cabinet for its decision to close Malta’s ports and ignore distressed individuals at sea despite the imminent danger that they were in.
In a judicial protest filed in Court, the NGO said that the Cabinet’s decision lacked humanity and did not respect both human rights and Malta’s national and international obligations.
They said the cabinet is collectively responsible for governing the country in accordance with the laws of the country as well as the ethics derived from that law, international treaties that Malta had signed and ratified and protection without discrimination of one’s fundamental rights, be the person in question a citizen or not.
Those taking the decision breached human rights as well as acted criminally in failing to take action in order to protect life, the group said.
Repubblika also signed a second, urgent request to the European Court of Human Rights for an interim measure preventing Malta and Italy from allowing refugees fleeing Libya to remain abandoned when their lives are in grave danger.
It argued to that the European Convention for Human Rights bound both countries to do everything necessary in order to protect the lives of everybody, including people who were not its citizens.
The group said that their request will be received too late in time to be able to help those who drowned at sea or were sent back to Libya today.
The Maltese government definitely knew that the situation in Libya was of clear danger to the life of immigrants and disastrous to their dignity, it added.
Repubblika recalled that the European Court had already intervened to stop Malta from pushing immigrants back to Libya in July 2013 and expressed that it would not have expected the government to repeat these same illegal actions six years later.
This was apart from the fact that now the government also has on its conscience those who died today as a result of the cruel politics and inhumane decision taken by the Abela government.
Repubblika assured justice for the individuals who died at sea today, and said that it held Abela and his Cabinet responsible for the decisions they took which led to the migrants’ deaths.