NGOs say Malta broke the law by directing asylum seekers to Egypt

International NGOs find that the Maltese government breached a part of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

Rescuing migrants
Refugees signal NGO Proactiva Open Arms' Uno rescue boat in the central Mediterranean Sea [File:Juan Medina/Reuters]

Malta has been accused of breaking international law after ordering a merchant ship to take rescued refugees to Egypt, despite Malta being much closer and safer.

According to a joint statement by four international groups, 23 people – who had little to no food and water with them – were rescued by the Shimanami Queen merchant vessel on September 26.

The Malta Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC), which is legally responsible for rescue missions in case of emergency, instructed the merchant vessel to take the rescued people to Egypt, according to Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Sea-Watch.

The NGOs say Malta’s decision to direct the refugees to Egypt breached the 1951 Geneva Convention, which states that countries should not expel or return a person “to the frontiers of territories where his life of freedom would be threatened”.

‘Forcibly taken’

The joint statement added that the 23 people were not taken to Malta or Italy, despite those countries being the closest, but were instead “forcibly taken 760 nautical miles [1,400km] to Egypt”.

“While Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention, the country lacks an adequate national legal framework for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers,” it said.

The NGOs denounced the move by Malta to disallow the 23 asylum seekers to find safety in Malta, saying that they “demand an end to these serious human rights violations in the central Mediterranean and along the EU’s external borders, committed directly by European authorities through private companies.

“European rescue coordination centres must fulfil their legal responsibilities and ensure the immediate rescue of people in distress at sea, with subsequent disembarkation in a place of safety in Europe,” the rights groups said.

In the past, NGOs have accused Malta of organising the return of refugees to Libya.

Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela has said the island country respects its primary duty not to let anyone die at sea.

There was no immediate reaction from the Maltese government to the accusations of the NGOs.

Source: Al Jazeera