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MALTA has been warned not to send 78 people rescued in its waters today back to a war zone just days after the prime minister admitted that the government had co-ordinated the return of 51 refugees to war-torn Libya over Easter.
At least two groups of refugees on wooden boats attempted to flee Libya by crossing the Mediterranean at the weekend.
Sixty-seven people were rescued by the Italian coastguard near the island of Lampedusa on Saturday after 30 gruelling hours at sea.
A second group of about 78 people contacted activist network Alarm Phone’s distress line late on Saturday night from waters inside Malta’s search-and-rescue zone.
The activists alerted the Maltese and Italian coastguards, but no rescue was launched.
At 10.30am today, Alarm Phone received confirmation that a merchant vessel had taken the refugees on board and that it was waiting for further instructions from Malta’s rescue co-ordination centre.
As of yet, it appeared that both Italy and Malta has not allowed the migrants into their ports.
Last week, Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela admitted commissioning the fishing boat that returned 51 refugees to Libya over after they had spent six days at sea.
Returning refugees to a place where they will face persecution is a breach of international refugee law known as refoulement or pushback.
“There was no pushback. There was a rescue of migrants,” Mr Abela insisted in a televised address last Friday.
The PM, members of the military and other government officials are currently being investigated after a Maltese charity filed a criminal complaint against their involvement in the Easter pushbacks.
“Had the Maltese government not co-ordinated, tens of [people] would have died,” Mr Abela said.
“Malta’s ports are closed, but it co-ordinated this rescue and ensured that the irregular migrants were taken to the port that was open.”
Simon Pompe, a spokesman for German refugee rescue organisation Sea Eye, told the Star today that he had been left dumbfounded by the Maltese PM’s comments.
“He openly admitted to packing up human beings and shipping them off to Libya, and then insisted they had ‘nothing to be ashamed of.’
“His linguistic acrobatics when arguing that this did not constitute a pushback were ridiculous.
“This Fata Morgana [mirage] of Tripoli as a safe port is equally ridiculous — now more so than ever, as even Tripoli’s authorities do not regard their own ports as safe any more, and as the civil war’s sides have recommitted to elongating the fighting.
“Malta is radically breaking with international law and the European Convention of Human Rights when it ships people to Libya or refuses to rescue people in distress at sea within their reach.”
Italian refugee rescue organisation Mediterranea: Saving Humans called on Malta, the Council of Europe and the United Nations today to immediately assign a port of safety for the refugees.
“We also warn you [against] taking steps such as ordering their transfer to a country at war, which may constitute serious violations of maritime and international law, in particular article 33 of the Geneva Convention on the refugee status, and articles two and three of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that the repeated result of these violations can constitute a crime against humanity,” the organisation’s president Alessandra Sciurba said in a letter.
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