Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

UNHCR investigates Malta over claims of migrant interception

Fifty migrants were 200km from Tripoli when picked up by Libyan coastguard in Malta’s search and rescue area

The UN refugee agency is investigating why Malta last week allegedly asked the Libyan coast guard to intercept a migrant boat in a zone of the Mediterranean under its own responsibility. AP
The UN refugee agency is investigating why Malta last week allegedly asked the Libyan coast guard to intercept a migrant boat in a zone of the Mediterranean under its own responsibility. AP

The UN refugee agency is investigating claims that Malta last week asked the Libyan coastguard to intercept a migrant boat in a zone of the Mediterranean under Maltese responsibility, in a possible breach of maritime law.

“There’s some evidence that Malta requested assistance from the Libyan coastguard to intervene” on October 18, Vincent Cochetel, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ special envoy for the central Mediterranean, said in Rome.

“We are looking into the reasons of Malta’s request.”

Mr Cochetel said Malta could have asked Libya to intervene for technical reasons.

“The problem is that the migrants were disembarked in Libya," he said. "That’s certainly a violation of maritime laws. It’s clear that Libya isn’t a safe port."

The interception was reported by Alarm Phone, an independent hotline for migrants in need of rescue at sea.

The group first received a call and GPS position from the boat carrying 50 migrants, including 10 women and five children, early that afternoon and told Malta about the case.

“We will take care of everything,” a Maltese officer on duty told an Alarm Phone activist at 2.40pm, a transcript of the call given to AP showed.

But in the hours after the first contact, Malta’s rescue and co-ordination centre stopped answering calls from Alarm Phone, which tried to follow up on the rescue.

By 5pm the boat reported it was leaking and later that a helicopter was flying over it.

Nearly seven hours later, Malta informed Alarm Phone that the boat had been intercepted by the EU-trained Libyan coastguard, about 75 kilometres from the Italian island of Lampedusa and 200km from Tripoli.

The Libyan coastguard did not answer repeated requests for comment. The Maltese government declined to comment about the case, which could also raise human rights issues.

International maritime law dictates that people rescued at sea should be taken to the nearest port of safety.

But migrants rescued by the Libyan coastguard are returned to the war-torn country and sent to EU-funded detention centres where many are victims of extortion, sexual abuse and human trafficking.

The UN agency says there are 650,000 migrants in Libya.

The transcript said that Maltese authorities justified the interception by saying the Libyans “had the case earlier, outside the Maltese search and rescue region".

Updated: October 23, 2019 10:16 AM

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