Malta’s continued refusal to disembark 27 asylum seekers and migrants from a cargo ship for more than three consecutive weeks sets a serious precedent of the longest denial of docking a ship at a European harbor simply because it rescued people in distress, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said in a statement today. Malta should immediately cease such actions that show blatant disregard to international law and the wellbeing and dignity of the asylum seekers and migrants on board.
Since August 5, 2020, a cargo ship called the Etienne, owned by the Danish shipping company Maersk has been trying to dock in Malta, after it picked up 27 asylum seekers, including a child and a pregnant woman, from a small unseaworthy wooden boat in the Mediterranean sea.
The asylum seekers were spotted on August 4 by a reconnaissance plane operated by the German refugee-rescue organization, Sea Watch, which then reached out to the Etienne that was standing 11 miles away for assistance.
Prior to their rescue, the asylum seekers on board, who had then just escaped from Libya, contacted the migrant distress hotline operated by the Alarm Phone activist network to seek rescue. Both Italy and Malta ignored Alarm Phone’s repeated emails and calls about those asylum seekers distressed at sea, although, the boat’s location was within Malta’s search-and-rescue zone. Since then, Malta has continuously been denying the Etienne entry
This stands as a clear violation of international law, particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention, which stipulates that signing “States are expected to cooperate in ensuring that the rights of refugees are respected and protected.”
"Malta’s continued refusal to allow the Etienne ship to dock and disembark the asylum seekers on board puts exhausted, undernourished and traumatized asylum seekers in a state of limbo," said Rawane Matene, Researcher at the Euro-Med Monitor, “this charade exacerbates the suffering of asylum seekers who underwent a dangerous journey through the Mediterranean to escape conflicts, persecution and life threats in their home countries."
Furthermore, by keeping a commercial ship waiting for permission to dock for that long, Malta’s government is signaling a seriously alarming message to shipping companies that they have to choose between delivering their cargo on time or rescuing distressed asylum seekers then getting trapped in a state of limbo and facing fines for the delay.
Euro-Med Monitor fears that Malta’s latest arbitrary decision will discourage commercial ships from rescuing asylum seekers at great risk in the Mediterranean, which means that Malta’s government would be incentivizing violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that stipulates that all ships are obliged to report an encounter with a vessel in distress and further, offer assistance, including rescue.
Euro-Med Monitor calls on Malta to immediately disembark said asylum seekers on board of the Etienne vessel and provide necessary legal and humanitarian measures that ensure dignified reception of asylum seekers, respect for their rights in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and address their needs vis-à-vis medical attention, protection or otherwise.
Euro-Med Monitor also calls on EU member states to immediately accept taking in their fair share of refugees and asylum seekers and to develop a better and clear mechanism to redistribute of asylum seekers that reach the EU through Malta or Italy, in order to avoid leaving the latter states overwhelmed under increased pressure of overcrowding.