UN rights office concerned over migrant boat pushbacks in the Mediterranean

The appeal follows reports of failure to assist, and even push back, vessels carrying desperate people in one of the world’s deadliest migration routes, amidst the fears and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

These developments are occurring 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”, said Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN human rights High Commissioner.

“We are also concerned 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 perilous journey from Libya to Europe has increased sharply,” he added.

No humanitarian boats at present

Currently, no humanitarian vessels are operating in the central Mediterranean after Italy this week 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 alleged that administrative regulations and measures are being used to impede the work of humanitarian NGOs”, said Mr. Colville.

“We call for restrictions on the work of these rescuers to be lifted immediately. Such measures are clearly putting lives at risk”.

COVID-19 and migrant interceptions

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) is also calling for a moratorium on all interceptions and returns to Libya, in accordance with its 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.

Mr. Colville recalled that while international law protects migrants from being returned to dangerous environments, both Italy and Malta have declared their ports are “unsafe” for disembarkation due to the virus.

Currently, at least three merchant vessels carrying migrants are affected.

While the Maltese authorities have allowed a small group ashore on humanitarian grounds, OHCHR said all migrants should disembark because the vessels are not suitable for long-term accommodation.

Danger awaits returned migrants

Last month, a vessel with 51 migrants onboard, three of them children, was returned to Libya on a private boat after being picked up in Maltese waters. They were subsequently sent to a detention facility.

Mr. Colville said the migrants had spent nearly a week at sea, during which five passengers died and seven others went missing, who are presumed drowned.

“We are also aware of claims that distress calls to relevant Maritime Rescue Coordination centres have gone unanswered or been ignored, which, if true, seriously calls into question the commitments of the States concerned to saving lives and respecting human rights”, he added.

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 risk of contracting COVID-19.