The UN voiced alarm at reports that nations are failing to aid migrants in distress on the Mediterranean Sea, preventing assistance by NGOs and ordering pushbacks of their boats. Limitations against humanitarians who rescue migrant vessels in the central Mediterranean are putting lives at risk and must be lifted immediately, the UN human rights office told.
The appeal follows records of failure to assist, and even push back, ships carrying hopeless people in one of the world’s deadliest migration journeys, amidst the fears and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).
These developments are happening as departures from Libya during the first quarter of the year rose four-fold over the same period in 2019. “Reports that Maltese authorities requested commercial ships to push boats with migrants and refugees in distress back to the high seas are of particular concern.” Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN human rights High Commissioner said, stressing that humanitarian search and rescue vessels, which usually patrol the central Mediterranean area, are being prevented from supporting migrants in distress, at a time when the numbers attempting to make the dangerous journey from Libya to Europe has increased sharply.
Currently, no humanitarian ships are operating in the central Mediterranean after Italy impounded the rescue ships Alan Kurdi and Aita Mari following a two-week quarantine offshore. Alan Kurdi, operated by a German non-governmental organization (NGO), is named after the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in September 2015. Aita Mari is run by a Spanish group.
“It has also been claimed that administrative regulations and measures are being used to impede the work of humanitarian NGOs”, affirmed Mr. Colville. Rupert Colville, also calling for restrictions on the work of these rescuers to be lifted immediately. “Such measures are clearly putting lives at risk”. He pointed out.
International human rights organizations are also calling for a moratorium on all interceptions and returns to Libya, in accordance with UN recent guidelines on COVID-19 and migrants. Despite the pandemic, search and rescue operations should be maintained and swift disembarkation ensured, in line with public health measures. While international law protects migrants from being returned to dangerous circumstances, both Italy and Malta have declared their ports are “unsafe” for disembarkation due to the new coronavirus.
At least three merchant vessels carrying migrants are affected. While the Maltese authorities have allowed a small group ashore on humanitarian grounds, Amnesty International said all migrants should disembark because the vessels are not suitable for long-term accommodation. Last month, a vessel with 51 migrants on board, three of them children, was returned to Libya – a country in civil war – on a private boat after being picked up in Maltese waters. They were subsequently sent to a detention facility.
The migrants had spent nearly a week at sea, during which five passengers died and seven others went missing, who are presumed dead. There are also reports claiming that distress calls to relevant Maritime Rescue Coordination centers have gone unanswered or been ignored, which, if true, seriously calls into question the commitments of the EU States concerned to saving lives and respecting human rights. Meanwhile, the Libyan Coast Guard is continuing to turn vessels back to its shores. Intercepted migrants are placed in arbitrary detention facilities, where they face human rights violations including torture, sexual violence, and lack of health care, as well as the risk of contracting COVID-19.
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