Malta is being investigated by the United Nation’s Refugee Agency for a potential breach of maritime law after it allegedly asked the Libyan coast guard to pick up migrants from a boat that was in the island’s own search and rescue zone.
Vincent Cochetel, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ special envoy for the central Mediterranean, told reporters in Rome that “there’s some evidence that Malta requested assistance from the Libyan coast guard” to intervene in its own search and rescue region on 18th October.
Cochetel said the UNHCR is looking into the reasons behind Malta’s request, including the possibility that it asked Libya to intervene for technical reasons.
“The problem is that the migrants were disembarked in Libya. That’s certainly a violation of maritime laws,” he said. “It’s clear that Libya isn’t a safe port.”
RCC #Malta delegated the operation to an EU-financed militia, who is intercepting the people to a war zone. Malta is fully responsible for this violation of international conventions – unless the LYCG are going to hand over the people to a vessel going in to a Port of Safety. pic.twitter.com/UwKQ4M1ByQ
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) October 18, 2019
The boat was carrying 50 people, including ten women and five children, and its interception by the Libyan coast guard was first flagged by Alarm Phone, a support hotline for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Alarm Phone said it received a call in the early afternoon of 18th October with the boat’s GPS position and promptly informed the Malta Armed Forces, where an officer responded that “we will take care of everything”.
However, the migrants informed the support hotline at 5pm that their boat was leaking and that they still didn’t know whether Malta was organising a rescue.
At 9:30pm, Malta informed Alarm Phone that the boat had been intercepted by the EU-trained Libyan coast guard, some 41 nautical miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa and 110 nautical miles from Tripoli.
International maritime law states that people rescued at sea should be taken to the closest port of safety, but several questions have been raised as to whether Libya is a safe country. Reports have warned that migrants rescued by the Libyan coast guard are sent to EU-funded detention centres, where they end up victims of extortion, sexual abuse and human trafficking.