How Malta stole the youth of three young men

Abdalla, Amara and Kader helped authorities defuse a tense situation on a boat with asylum seekers. Their reward? A never-ending legal nightmare.

Maltese special forces soldiers guard a group of migrants on the merchant ship Elhiblu 1 after it arrived in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Malta, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
Maltese special forces soldiers guard the merchant ship El Hiblu, carrying asylum seekers, after it arrived in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Malta, on March 28, 2019 [File: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]

Every week in 2023, at least 11 children have died or disappeared while attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea, according to a new report by UNICEF.

These deaths add to the grisly toll of more than 1,500 dead children since 2018 in the Central Mediterranean. The “true number of child casualties”, the report notes, is “impossible to verify and likely much higher”.

Such young victims of borders include two-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up along the Turkish shore in 2015, four-year-old Loujin Ahmed Nasif, who died of thirst on a boat that was ignored by the Maltese authorities in 2022, and six-year-old Marie and her mother who were left to die when Tunisian authorities forced them into the desert only a few weeks ago.

Though regularly described as unfortunate tragedies, the deaths of children and so many others are wholly predictable outcomes of European Union border policies and practices. The lack of legal pathways available to most people “on the move” fuels the smuggling industry and encourages dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean.

Well-documented EU and member state practices of non-assistance and violent pushbacks only increase the risk of shipwreck and death. Europe’s close collaborators, including in Libya and Tunisia, have a long record of egregious assaults on those trying to escape across the sea.

While political leaders lament some of these deaths – especially when they involve children – for those who survive dangerous journeys, a different fate awaits. Considered victims when they drown, survivors are easily transformed into villains by the state and are criminalised if they arrive on Europe’s shores.

Children and minors are no exception. For over three years, we have stood in solidarity with Abdalla, Amara and Kader after they arrived in Malta in March 2019, having been rescued from a sinking rubber boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. At just 15, 16 and 19 years old, their dream of arriving in Europe had come to pass, yet a new nightmare was just beginning.

They had departed from Libya on a small, overcrowded boat that soon began to take on water. The 100 or so passengers feared they wouldn’t reach Europe and that their fate lay with the thousands of others who have died in the Mediterranean. Fear turned to relief when an oil tanker, the El Hiblu, appeared to rescue the distressed travellers.

As they clambered aboard, the first mate of the vessel identified Amara as someone who spoke English and could translate between the six-man crew and the other passengers.

Tensions rose as the tanker attempted to illegally return the rescued to Libya, as instructed by EU authorities. Knowing the violence that awaited them there, people on board despaired, with some threatening to jump overboard rather than be returned and others chanting “No Libya”.

The first mate asked Amara once more to translate, with Abdalla and Kader also helping to mediate between a scared crew and scared passengers. Three teenagers who had left their families to search for a better life and who were strangers until that moment, helped to resolve an unpredictable situation thanks to their language skills. The oil tanker turned north, away from the Libyan coast and motored towards Malta.

But even before the El Hiblu landed in Malta, the international press and politicians like Italy’s then interior minister, Matteo Salvini, quickly instrumentalised the situation, portraying the three as pirates and hijackers. On arrival, the three were accused of having committed multiple crimes, including acts of “terrorism”, threatening a crew, and hijacking a ship – preliminary charges that could carry life sentences.

In the first days of their imprisonment, Amara was convinced officials had made a mistake. Surely the authorities would realise that translators weren’t “terrorists”? Their disillusionment deepened as they suffered further injustices: they were imprisoned for almost eight months, initially in the maximum-security wing of Corradino, the adult prison in Malta, despite two of them being minors at the time.

Since their release, they have had to adhere to strict bail conditions while Malta’s judicial system turns at a snail’s pace. Four years have passed and Attorney General Victoria Buttiġieġ has yet to formally bring charges against the three – or to drop them, as the three and their supporters insist she must, given the evidence presented in court. Witnesses have testified during hearings that the three helped calm the situation on board and have thanked them for their actions.

The pre-trial stage drags on with monthly hearings regularly dismissed, despite the prosecution having rested its case for almost a year. These constant delays can only be viewed as deliberate attempts to wear the three young men down, to demoralise them and strip them of hope.

The case illustrates how time is “weaponised” not only at sea, where migrant boats are often deliberately left in distress and rescue efforts delayed, but also on land, where the lives of “newcomers” are put on hold as they are criminalised.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Maltese authorities have a responsibility to ensure that, “Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect … and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.” They are manifestly failing in this duty in this case.

Abdalla, Amara and Kader are now known as the El Hiblu 3, bound together in a legal process that has left them in a state of legal, physical and emotional limbo. They are unable to settle and build a life in Malta.

They’ve been wrongly accused of hijacking a ship, but it is they who have been robbed of their liberty. Malta has stolen their youth.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.