Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic urged the Maltese government to meet its human rights obligations towards migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, who cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
Maltese authorities should respond effectively and urgently to any situation of distress at sea of which they become aware, even if a boat is outside Malta's territorial waters, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, said in the letter sent to Maltese Premier Robert Abela on May 5 and published on May 11.
Country must respect obligations on human rights
In the letter, the commissioner called on the Maltese government to fully respect its obligations towards migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, who cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
''In accordance with their obligations under international maritime and human rights law, the Maltese authorities should respond effectively and urgently to any situation of distress at sea of which they become aware'', she wrote.
''Obligations to coordinate search and rescue operations may also accrue when the distress situation occurs outside the Maltese Search and Rescue Region (SRR), at the very least until such moment when coordination can be handed over to other states' authorities that are willing and able to assume responsibility in a manner compliant with maritime and human rights law, and have effectively done so."
She also urged the government to ensure that Malta fully meets its obligations when it is notified of a distress situation or receives requests for assistance, and that all credible allegations of delay or non-response are investigated and addressed.
The commissioner then stressed that Libya cannot be considered a safe place, urging the Maltese government to abstain from any action that would result in the return and disembarkation in Libya of people who have been rescued or intercepted at sea.
''This includes ensuring no one is returned to Libya by Maltese authorities, refraining from issuing instructions to private vessels to disembark rescued persons in Libya, and not handing over responsibility to the Libyan Coast Guard or related entities when the foreseeable consequence of this would be disembarkation in Libya'', the letter said.
Appeal for more solidarity in Malta
While recognizing the challenges -- now increased by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic -- that sea crossings and arrivals have posed for Malta for a considerable time, Mijatovic stressed that such challenges ''cannot negate clear obligations to save lives at sea and to ensure prompt and safe disembarkation."
The commissioner stressed that she will continue to call for more solidarity from Council of Europe member states with those countries, like Malta, which are on the frontline of migration movements to Europe, and for better co-operation to ensure the effective preservation of life and the protection of other human rights of those at sea, including through responsibility sharing for adequate search and rescue capacity and the timely disembarkation of those rescued.
She stressed the need to guarantee that humanitarian considerations always take priority over disagreements between member states about disembarkation.