Controversy has broken out in Malta over an incident involving the rescue of a group of Somali refugees from a sinking dingy by the Maltese military last week. The Somali's boat was spotted by Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) and Libyan vessels south of the island on Sunday 18 July and they mounted a joint rescue. The 55 Somalis were divided into two groups, with 28 (22 men, five women and a child) who required medical attention boarding the AFM boat and the remaining 27 immigrants 'voluntarily' boarding the Libyan vessel.
The controversy stems not just from the fact that the migrants claim that their comrades were tricked into returning to Libya, but from the fact that the actions of the AFM personnel render the Maltese government complicit in the Italian-Libyan 'push back' pack and its breaching of international law.
The 'push back' policy came into effect in May last year, with the Libyan government agreeing to accept the return of migrants intercepted on the high seas by the Italian navy. In return they would receive 6 Italian fast launches, that they would operate as part of their effort in the naval patrols, and lucrative economic deals and cash inputs to Libya's notorious detention system. All this is contrary to international treaties preventing the refoulement of refugees and is an abrogation of Italy's responsibility to allow refugees the opportunity to make asylum applications when, as the European Court of Human Rights has rules, a state already exercises 'effective control' over the person in question.
Malta has so far been a particular beneficiary of this policy, with not one single African migrant reaching its shore since last October, compared with the 1,400 in the first nine months of 2009. However, up till now it has not become directly involved in the transactions between Italy and Libya but, with this event, it has become directly embroiled in this dodgy deal.
Firstly, there is the problem over whether the Somalis who 'chose' to return to Libya actually knew that was what they were doing as many of the migrants that made it to Malta claim that their compatriots thought they were going onto Italy as there were Italian speakers on the Libyan boat. As Laura Boldrini, a Rome-based UNHCR spokesperson said, "It's difficult to believe anyone would choose to go back to Libya, after having paid a lot of money and risking their lives. In many years of work in this field, I've never seen anything of the sort. How can it be that an asylum seeker voluntarily opts to be returned to a place where he cannot get asylum?"
Added to that is the fact that the recognition rate for Somali refugees in Malta is very high and most, if not all, would probably have been given protection. Therefore, for the Maltese authorities to allow the Somalis, which they are obliged to disembark at a safe port, to return to Libya, a country that is known to have a poor human rights record, without express assurances on the treatment and safety of the refugees has laid themselves open to charges of complicity in any potential human rights violations.
The decidedly odd nature of this incident is further illustrated by the case of Ahmed Mahmoud Muhammed, who claims that his wife, 19year-old Mariam Hussen, who is seven months pregnant, was one of the migrants taken back to Libya. He alleges that he told Maltese soldiers that his wife was on the Libyan boat but they kept insisting that he boarded the Libyan ship to identify her. Fearing that he would be returned to Libya and loose all chance of getting out of that "hell", he refused. The AFM deny his claim.
Mariam was returned to a Libyan prison but fortunately managed to get released after a few days. His story brings into question the claims that the migrants on the Libyan boat thought they were going on to Italy, especially as the 'push back' policy is widely known about in Libya, but also the AFM claims that the Somalis were given the choice as to which boat they chose and that accompanied spouses were allowed on the same boat.
Despite the widespread controversy over the issue and the obvious implications as regards Maltese responsibilities under international law, the prime minister Lawrence Gonzi has ruled out an independent inquiry. Maybe there is something to hide?
See also: Joe Sacco's 'Not In My Country' for a different view on the plight of migrants in Malta.