Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Date: 08 May 2020
Subject: Migrant rescues in the Mediterranean
We are deeply concerned about recent reports of failure to assist and coordinated pushbacks of migrant boats in the central Mediterranean, which continues to be one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. Reports that Maltese authorities requested commercial ships to push boats with migrants in distress back to the high seas are of particular concern.
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. Following the immobilization of the humanitarian rescue ships Alan Kurdi and Aita Mari, there are currently no active humanitarian search and rescue vessels in the central Mediterranean. It has also been alleged that administrative regulations and measures are being used to impede the work of humanitarian NGOs.
We call for restrictions on the work of these rescuers to be lifted immediately. Such measures are clearly putting lives at risk.
In the first three months of the year, there has already been a four-fold increase in departures from Libya compared to the same period in 2019. Migrants embarking on this journey have a diverse range of protection needs under both international human rights and refugee law, including the principle of non-refoulement, which protects all migrants, regardless of their migration or asylum status, from being expelled or returned to dangerous environments.
Yet, since 9 April, both Italy and Malta have declared their ports 'unsafe' for disembarkation due to COVID-19.
Currently, we understand that there are at least three vessels with migrants on board awaiting disembarkation. On 7 May, media reported that a small group of adults, including a pregnant women, and children were allowed to disembark one of the vessels after the Maltese government gave a concession on humanitarian grounds. While we welcome this effort, we call for all migrants currently being held on board these vessels to be urgently disembarked, as the conditions on merchant vessels are not suitable for long-term accommodation.
On 15 April, UNSMIL verified that a vessel containing 51 migrants and asylum seekers, including 8 women and 3 children, was returned to Libya on a private Maltese boat after being picked up in Maltese waters. The migrants were sent to Takiq al-Sikka detention facility by the Libyan authorities. During their six days at sea, five people had died and seven others went missing and 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.
Meanwhile, the Libyan Coast Guard is continuing to turn vessels back to its shores, and place the intercepted migrants in arbitrary detention facilities where they face horrendous conditions including torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence, lack of health care and other human rights violations. These overcrowded facilities are also, of course, at high risk of being over-run with COVID-19.
We call for a moratorium on all interceptions and returns to Libya. In accordance with our recently published guidelines on COVID-19 and migrants we reiterate that States must always comply with their obligations under international human rights and refugee law.
Despite COVID-19, SAR operations should be maintained and swift disembarkation ensured in a port of safety, while ensuring compatibility with public health measures.