International and local human rights NGOs are calling on the Maltese Government to cease the current practices they are using in handling asylum seekers seeking refuge.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) called on Malta and other European states to “speed efforts” to bring the 160 rescued refugees and migrants, who remain at sea on board two Captain Morgan vessels, on to dry land and to safety, citing deep concern, and reminding the EU states of their international obligations.
On Wednesday, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor asked the government to end the use of private vessels to push asylum seekers to Libya and stop hindering them from seeking refuge in Europe.
“The Maltese government should immediately cease all covert and indirect methods of deterring migrants and refugees from seeking a safe refuge in the EU,” the organisation said, echoing concerns by Maltese NGOs.
The statement followed media reports about being intercepted at sea by private ships contracted by Malta’s government to push migrants back to Libya. An operation involving a fishing boat in April left 12 dead, while the 51 surviving passengers on board the vessel were returned to war-torn Libya.
Former Maltese official, Neville Gafà, revealed he was hired to coordinate the use of private ships and fishing trawlers to intercept asylum seekers in the Mediterranean and send them back to Libya.
— Euro-Med Monitor (@EuroMedHR) May 21, 2020
“This secret arrangement between Malta’s government and private ship owners allows for the exercise of serious violations against asylum seekers stranded at sea without directing blame towards Malta or the EU,” the NGO said.
Capturing migrants at sea and returning them to Libya cannot be categorised as rescue, but rather as punishment.
Questions on Captain Morgan’s ‘offshore prisons’ get vague replies
Following the revelations of the returns to Libya by fishing vessels, the Maltese government took to housing groups of asylum seekers who have been rescued in Malta’s search and rescue area onboard Captain Morgan vessels outside Maltese territorial waters.
The vessels usually serve to take tourists on tours around the islands. Questions on whether the facilities on board the boat are adequate to satisfy sanitary and health and safety standards remain unanswered.
The information on the details surrounding the initiative is sporadic, adding more doubt than reassurance. The government is vague on who is paying for the crew on the Captain Morgan boats currently housing migrants and is still refusing to give further details as to how many of the crew members working on board these vessels are being paid.
SOS! Cries for help from Malta’s offshore prisons!
For weeks, people rescued off Malta’s coast are kept on “Captain Morgan” ships. Some have found a way to reach out to us. They say that some started a hunger strike, others attempted to take their own lives out of desperation. pic.twitter.com/NomAG02OgD
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) May 19, 2020
Abela was evasive in his reply to a parliamentary question by Nationalist MP Mario Galea who asked whether the crew on Captain Morgan was being paid by the government or not and for how much.
In his dry reply, Abela referred to another PQ presented by Jason Azzopardi to Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri in which Camilleri simply states that the crew falls under the responsibility of the company which owns the vessel, in this case Captain Morgan. Minister Camilleri also refused to give the crew list for this operation.
Transport Minister Ian Borg had told parliament that there were four crew members on the Europa II.
In previous parliamentary questions, the Prime Minister said the government was forking out €3,000 a day for every vessel it rented to keep migrants off Maltese shores. Reports suggested that the government opted for the cheapest option; but there were no official documents to back this statement. The government did not provide a breakdown of the costs.
Meanwhile, Abela has said that he wanted the European Union to pay for this initiative the prime minister implemented on his own terms and in breach of international obligations.
While the government continues to use the pandemic to justify this breach, the prime minister has relaxed COVID-19 measures throughout the country. Abela told people to go out and enjoy summer and ignore the ‘scaremongering’.
20 Local NGOs demand release and assistance
Alerts from NGO Alarm Phone on Tuesday said the people on board the Captain Morgan “offshore prisons” have gone on hunger strike.
Twenty Maltese human rights and civic groups said Malta was denying them basic human rights and dignity.
Socially distant demonstration outside Castille, asking the Prime Minister to do the right thing and protect the dignity of the men detained on a ship outside our waters.@RobertAbela_MT #humanrights#DontLetThemDrown pic.twitter.com/pWREuSVkJV
— aditus foundation (@aditusNGO) May 20, 2020
“Malta is responsible for their ongoing detention out at sea and for the conditions they are forced to endure,” the NGOs said in a statement on Wednesday.
The NGOs, including Aditus, Moviment Graffiti, MGRM, JRS and the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation called on the government to immediately provide the asylum seekers with medical and psychological care and let them in. They also strongly urged EU institutions to assist Malta in finding a solution.
A socially-distanced protest was held in front of the Prime Minister’s Office yesterday, calling for the dignity of the people on the Captain Morgan vessels to be respected.