UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), are calling on Malta and other European States to speed efforts to bring some 160 rescued refugees and migrants, who remain at sea on board two Captain Morgan vessels, on to dry land and to safety.
A separate group of 21 people, mostly families, women and children, were already evacuated and disembarked in Malta several days ago. It is important to disembark the remaining people as soon as possible, as they have been on board the vessel for some two weeks – the standard quarantine period for COVID-19 – without any clarity on disembarkation. It is unacceptable to leave people at sea longer than necessary, especially under difficult and unsuitable conditions.
Mediterranean States have been at the forefront of receiving sea arrivals in recent years. Their efforts, and those of NGO search and rescue vessels, have prevented many tragic deaths.
However, UNHCR and IOM are also deeply concerned about reports that States have been ignoring or delaying responses to distress calls, especially amid a sharp decrease in state led and NGO search and rescue capacity.
We remind States of their obligations under international law to immediately assist people in distress. These obligations cannot be traded away with the offer of fuel and aid. States must take every effort to promptly rescue people in distress, as a delay of even a few minutes could make the difference between life and death.
Public health measures such as mandatory, time-limited quarantines, medical screening and physical distancing must be applied without discrimination and within the specified national health protocol. States must continue to disembark people rescued at sea, in line with international maritime law obligations and ensure access to asylum and humanitarian assistance.
Reception capacities in some Mediterranean States are further challenged by necessary health measures put in place due to COVID-19. Recognizing this serious challenge, we have offered support to ensure the effective and speedy processing of new arrivals.
Prompt disembarkation must also be supported by tangible solidarity from other European States through a timely and predictable relocation mechanism and – once conditions permit – effective cooperation on returns to country of origin for those found not to be in need of international protection.
A clearly agreed system for post-disembarkation relocation is urgently needed if we are to finally move away from a perpetual cycle of negotiations and ad-hoc arrangements that put the lives and health of people at further risk.
The relocation of 17 people yesterday from Malta to France shows that solidarity at the time of COVID-19 is possible, with all necessary precautions and measures to ensure preventing further spreading of the virus in place.
UNHCR and IOM unequivocally reiterate that no one rescued at sea should be returned to Libya. The misery and risk to life posed by intensifying conflict, arbitrary detention and widespread human rights violations, amongst other factors, mean it cannot be considered a place of safety. Direct or indirect State involvement through commercial boats in the return of rescued migrants and refugees to Libya may constitute a violation of international law.