Left: Migrants in a Libyan detention camp (Photo: AFP). Right: Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Volunteers aboard a search-and-rescue NGO vessel have warned Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat that allowing the Libyan coastguard to intercept fleeing asylum seekers is not a humane solution.
“We have all heard the horror stories of the concentration camps in Libya, and to be honest no one would risk their lives and their family’s lives unless the sea is safer than the land,” Sea-Watch spokesperson Alina Krobok told Lovin Malta.
“We’ve heard of people jumping off boats once the Libyan coastguard intercepts them because they’d rather die than return to Libya. We’ve heard the testimonies of people who managed to flee Libya, we’ve seen their scars and we’ve seen firsthand how traumatised they are.”
She noted that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) doesn’t have access to 80% of Libyan camps and that Germany’ ambassador to Niger recently flagged the situation in these camps as worse than concentration camps.
“There are executions of countless migrants, torture, rapes, bribery and banishment to the desert on a daily basis,” the report says, citing witnesses who spoke of camp guards executing five people a week in an attempt to free up space for new migrants and increase smugglers’ revenues.
Joseph Muscat with Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord
Joseph Muscat adopted a tough stance against the Sea-Watch and other search-and-rescue NGOs yesterday evening, stating it is unacceptable for them to pick up migrants who were not in distress in Libyan waters when the North African country’s coastguard was preparing to pick them up themselves.
“There are rules for everyone and we cannot have a race in Libyan waters. Rules have to be observed,” he said.
Muscat also insisted search-and-rescue vessels shouldn’t issue their coordinates on social media as doing so encourages human smugglers to send migrants out to sea.
However, Kobrak argued that migrants will flee Libya regardless of whether NGO vessels are out at sea or not.
“We weren’t out at sea last June and the Mediterranean death rate reached a new high,” she said. “These people don’t know whether we’re out there or not. They don’t receive this sort of information when stuck in detention centres, they just go out and hope to survive.”
Migrants aboard the Sea-Watch 3 vessel
Moreover, fellow Sea-Watch volunteer Ruben Neugebauer said that Muscat’s warning not to “advertise” their positions is essentially advice for NGO vessels to break international law.
“International law obliges all ships to keep our AIS (automatic identification system) signals switched on so as to prevent collisions. By asking us to switch off this signal, Muscat is essentially asking us to break the law.”
He added that returning these migrants to Libya would result in a breach of the ‘non-refoulement’ principle of international law, which forbids sending asylum seekers to countries in which they would likely to be in danger of persecution.
“We fully understand that Malta is taking in the lion’s share of people relative to their small size and that it is requesting other states to share this responsibility,” Neugebauer said. “However, at the same time, Malta cannot ask us to breach international law. The problem isn’t the people escaping war but EU member states like Germany and Austria who are shunning their responsibilities. Joseph Muscat should be issuing statements against these member states and not against the people carrying out rescue missions.”
The Sea-Watch 3 crew in Malta
The Sea-Watch 3 was one of two vessels which were recently at the centre of a diplomatic standoff between Malta and Italy, both of whom refused to take in the 49 migrants they had saved. After 19 days at sea, Malta took them in after eight EU member states agreed to redistribute them, as well as a further 131 migrants the Maltese armed forces had saved in recent weeks.
However, with no permanent redistribution mechanism in sight, the situation risks repeating itself in the near future. The Sea-Watch 3 is currently off the Tunisian coast, awaiting weather conditions to clear up before it can sail closer to Libya and pick up any asylum seekers it spots in international waters.
Kobrak confirmed the volunteers have no idea what will happen once the next batch of migrants are saved, noting that such responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of government.
“Italy and Malta are usually our two closest ports of safety but we are totally dependent on the authorities. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to find a port of safety because after all we’re just a vessel rescuing people in need.”