Ċetta and Daniel Mainwaring, in cooperation with the SARchive and documentation team of the CMRCC
“We suffer the consequences of policies drawn up in Europe with our lives, our blood, and our loved ones.” David Yambio, a young Sudanese refugee who founded the organisation Refugees in Libya, spoke these words at Baħar Ċimiterju (or Cemetery Sea) in Malta in February 2023. In parallel with CommemorActions occurring around the world, the protest commemorated the more than 1.400 people who died or disappeared last year in the Central Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest migration route. It also pointed to the complicity of Maltese authorities in rendering the Sea a cemetery by refusing to rescue people in distress. Indeed, throughout most of the 21st century, Maltese policymakers have constructed crises around migration and shirked their human rights obligations: abandoning people at sea, facilitating the forced return of people to warzones and marginalising and criminalising them if they manage, against all odds, to arrive on the Maltese islands.
In line with the wider EU, Malta has chosen racist rhetoric, policies, and practices that kill people and undermine the right to asylum. At sea, Maltese authorities regularly abandon those in need of rescue. In 2022, they ignored more than 20.000 people in distress: 413 migrant boats in distress in Malta’s search and rescue (SAR) zone were not assisted and only three boats were rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM). Non-assistance is now a routine part of a suite of deadly measures aimed at reducing arrivals in Malta by deterring people from leaving Libya and encouraging those who do leave to disembark in Italy. Such non-assistance puts people’s lives at risk and leads to deaths at sea, as evidenced in the cases discussed in detail below.
This trend toward non-assistance coincides with a broad EU policy of preventing departures from Libya through cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG). In the wake of a secret deal struck between Malta and Libya in 2018, Malta has followed the EU’s lead in externalising border controls through increased cooperation with the LCG to prevent people leaving North Africa. In contravention of international law, the Maltese authorities have allowed the LCG to enter Malta’s SAR zone in order to intercept and forcibly return people to Libya. The violent conditions that migrants and refugees face in Libya are well documented: people are regularly subjected to rape, torture, extortion and other inhuman and degrading treatment. In a preliminary assessment, the International Criminal Court said such abuses ‘may constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes’. Libya is not a safe place. Returning people there thus contravenes the principle of non-refoulement.
Avoiding Rescue and Facilitating Forced Returns
Successive Maltese governments prioritise policies aimed at preventing the arrival of people by sea, policies that violate the laws of the sea, as well as the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and render one of the world’s deadliest migration routes ever more dangerous. Over the past decade, the practices of ignoring distress signals and delaying rescue have resulted in the deaths of countless people in Malta’s SAR zone. Non-assistance at sea by the Maltese authorities involves both a failure to conduct search operations and the active obstruction of rescue through a number of different means, including: (1) ignoring distress calls and failing to coordinate rescue; (2) discouraging rescue by commercial vessel; (3) refusing to engage with other SAR actors; and (4) cooperating with the Libyan Coast Guard in order to deter departures from Libya and facilitate pullbacks to the country.
Malta holds responsibility for coordinating rescue in its SAR zone. Relative to its geographic size, Malta’s SAR zone is vast, a vestige of British colonial rule that stretches over 250.000 square kilometres across the central Mediterranean. As the map below shows, it encircles the Italian island of Lampedusa and, in the north, overlaps with parts of Italy’s SAR zone. Despite its clear legal and ethical responsibilities in the SAR zone, Malta continues to shirk its duties. This politics of non-assistance has taken different forms, from legal and diplomatic wrangling with Italy over responsibility to rescue and disembark, a common tactic between 2004 and 2013, to ignoring distress calls entirely, a practice witnessed in recent years. Indeed, the practice of non-assistance has contributed to the deaths of more than 26.000 people in the Mediterranean since 2014 and continues to endanger people every day. Such official figures on attempted crossings and migrant deaths are also underestimates of the actual death toll: many people whose bodies aren’t recovered are never counted.
For example, on the 11th of October 2013, the distress calls from over two hundred people in Malta’s search and rescue area were repeatedly ignored. Malta and Italy stood by while two hundred and sixty-eight people, including sixty children, drowned near their shores. In December 2022, the Court of Rome ruled that members of the Italian coast guard and navy were guilty of manslaughter and negligence for failing to conduct a rescue operation in that case (cf. Echoes #4). The court had no jurisdiction to prosecute Maltese authorities, however there is little doubt that they are guilty by extension. This case of non-assistance resulting in deaths within Malta’s SAR zone is a notable one, but alas it is only one of many.
In light of such deadly delays to rescue, there have been calls for Malta to give up parts of its SAR zone. Yet the country has roundly refused: the region coincides with Malta’s highly profitable Flight Information Region, where air traffic control charges are levied on all aircrafts, and which thus brings in millions of euros every year. The SAR zone may also be relevant to future fishing and oil exploration rights.
Alongside its refusal to fulfill its legal obligations regarding rescuing people in distress, the Government of Malta actively discourages merchant ships from rescuing people, thus further exacerbating death and suffering at sea. As a matter of standard practice, Maltese authorities fail to relay distress calls to vessels in the area that may be able to conduct rescues. Commercial ships have in several cases not received any instruction from the Maltese authorities when in the vicinity of migrants in distress, or instead have been told only to shadow a boat in distress from a distance. Rarely are commercial ships immediately directed to render assistance. Furthermore, in similar blatant disregard for international law, Malta occasionally instructs commercial vessels to intercept and forcibly return people to third countries that are not safe and do not have legal frameworks which provide for asylum.
In 2020, for example, the Maltese government contracted a fleet of three privately-owned vessels to forcibly return people from Malta’s search and rescue area to Libya, by all accounts an unsafe, war-torn country. Twelve people died in that operation and the survivors were returned to Tripoli’s Tariq al-Sikka, one of Libya’s most notorious detention centres. Fifty-two of the survivors, along with relatives of the deceased, are party to an ongoing constitutional case against the Maltese government alleging a breach of their rights and a violation of the right to life.
Civil fleet vessels, operated by various non-governmental organisations, are similarly hampered in their efforts to rescue people in distress. The Maltese authorities actively conceal the presence of vessels in distress and refuse to engage with other SAR actors, especially search-and-rescue NGOs. When they manage to rescue people, civil fleet vessels are denied a safe port and the right to disembark those on board in Malta. Malta’s policy of deterring disembarkation at all costs is borne out by the number of arrivals in 2022: 105.131 people arrived in Italy by sea, while only 433 arrived in Malta. In 2023, the government has thus far only allowed one person to disembark in Malta.
In a recent op-ed, Foreign Minister Camilleri unapologetically outlined Malta’s policy of preventing migrant arrivals by sea. In “Defending Our Realm,” the minister doubled down on this ‘prevention policy’ and stressed that cooperating with North African countries, Libya in particular, is essential to keeping the number of migrant arrivals down. There is no doubt that the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Malta and the Government of National Accord in Tripoli in May 2020, establishing coordination centres in Tripoli and Valletta to enhance cooperation on migration control, served to reduce the number of arrivals in Malta. Indeed, more than 24.500 people were intercepted at sea by the LCG in 2022 alone. However, Camilleri fails to inform his readers that this policy subjects people to well-documented human rights violations, rape, torture and enslavement.
Pullbacks from within Malta’s SAR zone contributed to the 108.000 people intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya by the LCG since 2017. The EU and its member states enable and encourage these pullbacks by providing the LCG with millions of euros in funding, training, and logistical support. Indeed, logistical support provided by Frontex, the European Agency for the Protection of External Borders, plays an essential role in the systematic return of people to Libya. For example, Frontex drones based in Malta and Italy surveil the Mediterranean, relaying information about migrant boats to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, some of which is then relayed to the LCG. A study conducted by Human Rights Watch and Border Forensics found that thirty percent of people intercepted by the LCG in 2021 were initially spotted at sea by a Frontex aerial asset.
Cases of Distress
These different practices of non-assistance by the Maltese authorities – from failing to conduct search operations to obstructing rescue – contribute to deaths at sea and to the forced return of people to Libya. Here we outline three notable cases from 2022 to illustrate these deadly dynamics at sea.
On the 25th of August 2022, Loujin Ahmed Nasif, a four-year-old Syrian girl, boarded a wooden fishing vessel on Lebanon’s coast with her mother and one-year-old sister, Mira. They set out across the sea with over sixty other people from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon. Running out of basic provisions and taking on water, they began sending out distress signals on September 3rd. Those distress signals were immediately relayed by the Alarm Phone to the Maltee authorities. For days, the AFM ignored the distress signal and NGO calls to heed it, as they have done with countless other migrant vessels in distress in conjunction with their drive towards non-assistance and the forced pushbacks of migrants at sea. For days, Loujin, her family, and their fellow travellers drifted in the eastern part of Malta’s search and rescue region. Commercial vessels, such as the STI Solace and the Uno passed within eyesight multiple times. The AFM instructed none of them to intervene. Finally, on September 6th, the AFM instructed a cargo vessel, the BBC Pearl, to carry out a belated rescue. Loujin was unconscious when she was pulled onboard and died shortly after. Her last words were “Mother, I’m thirsty.” Her death was wholly predictable and preventable.
A month later, on the 22nd of September 2022, the Maltese Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) was informed of 23 people in distress in Malta’s SAR zone. Over the course of the following four days, a number of commercial vessels such as the Hafnia Targus were ordered by the RCC to continue their voyage or stand-by and monitor the boat in distress rather than carry out a rescue. The authorities further obstructed rescue by instructing the Hafnia Targus not to engage with any civil society actors. Finally on September 26th, the RCC instructed a bulk carrier, the Shimanami Queen, to intercept the vessel and forcibly return the twenty-three people to Egypt. The nearest safe ports in this case were in Italy and Malta, respectively 146 and 158 nautical miles from the point of rescue. However, in contravention of multiple laws of the sea, the authorities instructed the captain of the Shimanami Queen to take those aboard to Egypt, 760 nautical miles away. By forcibly returning people in distress from Malta’s SAR zone to Egypt, a country that lacks a robust legal framework for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, Maltese authorities once again violated the principle of non-refoulement.
On the 25th October 2022, 70 people in distress in Malta’s SAR zone were intercepted by the LCG patrol boat Fezzan 658. LCG personnel aboard the Fezzan threatened to shoot down the Sea-Watch aircraft Seabird 3, which had arrived to document the pullback, with surface-to-air missiles. All people on the vessel in distress were forcibly returned to Libya. There is growing evidence of European and Maltese complicity in facilitating pullbacks and pushbacks from Malta’s SAR zone to North Africa in violation of the legal principle of non-refoulement. However, the authorities are reluctant to reveal the extent of their role and specific instances of forced returns from Malta’s SAR are only documented through the efforts of civil society actors.
These detailed cases of distress, death, and forced return illustrate the broad policy towards non-assistance and externalised border controls adopted by the Maltese government. They also indicate the extent to which, on an operational level, these policies entail sustained, real-time decision making that endangers human life. Faced with thousands of deaths in the Central Mediterranean, with a Baħar Ċimiterju, Maltese authorities choose to prioritise migration controls and their externalisation to North Africa, policies and practices that exacerbate violence and death in the Central Mediterranean, rather than prioritise human life.
As Maltese authorities neglect and erode migrant rights at sea, so too have they echoed these practices on land: the 433 people who managed, despite deadly migration controls, to arrive in Malta in 2022, face a hostile environment where migrants and refugees are subject to institutional racism and marginalisation. Maltese authorities have adopted practices, from detention to deportation raids, which criminalise people and fuel racism and violence.
Yet at sea and on land, people resist these violent borders. People continue to move across the Mediterranean and arrive in Malta and Italy, many autonomously. At the Baħar Ċimiterju CommemorAction, 47 local NGOs and many individuals stood in solidarity to commemorate those who died at sea and to demand that the Maltese authorities rescue those in distress. They include people born in Malta and those more recently arrived, people working in Malta to resist marginalisation and oppression, people working to turn Europe and the Mediterranean Sea from a cemetery into a space of welcome. In a multitude of ways, through rescue, documentation, protest, art, and the law, they work to resist the violence of borders and bordering and to enact a politics of care and rights.
Article published in Echoes#5