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Malta instructs rescue ship to take 23 people to Egypt rather than to closer ports in Europe

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The following is a joint statement by Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Médecins Sans Frontières  (MSF) and Sea-Watch.

On 26 September 2022, 23 people were sent to Egypt on the instructions of the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) of Malta, after being rescued in the Maltese search and rescue (SAR) region by the merchant vessel Shimanami Queen, navigating under the Panama state flag. At the time of the rescue, those on board the small boat had already been at sea for four days, in poor weather conditions and with very limited supplies of food and water.

In line with maritime conventions, RCC Malta is legally responsible for coordinating any rescue operations in the event of an emergency or accident within its SAR region. In this specific case, RCC Malta instructed merchant vessels in the immediate vicinity of the boat in distress either to continue their voyage or merely to stay on standby, therefore delaying the rescue significantly. The lack of clear guidance and the unnecessary delays in coordinating the rescue deliberately put the lives of the 23 people on board at imminent risk. This is a common practice by the Maltese authorities to avoid having to engage in a rescue operation themselves and to prevent arrivals in Malta, as witnessed and documented in several cases by civil SAR organisations.In April 2020, the Maltese authorities ordered the merchant vessel IVAN first to only stay on stand-by and then to leave the scene of a distress case. The people have been pushed back to Libya by a fishing vessel afterwards: In July 2020, the Maltese authorities ordered the merchant vessel COSMO to only monitor two distress cases instead of conducting rescue operations. Due to the inactivity of the RCC Malta, one of the boats got finally intercepted by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard within the Maltese SAR Region and pulled back to Libya:    

In this instance, RCC Malta also failed to cooperate with civil SAR organisations in such a way as to ensure that the lifesaving operations were carried out as quickly as possible. Following the rescue, RCC Malta used the Shimanami Queen to enforce the hostile migration policies of Europe, and of Malta itself, by instructing the ship to take the rescued people to Egypt.

Search and rescue As organisations engaging in search and rescue activities at sea, we denounce the forcible transfer of these 23 people to Egypt and call for consequences to Malta’s blatant violations of maritime and international law.
Boat awaiting rescue

Malta violates the principle of non-refoulement

In reference to the non-refoulement principle of the 1951 Geneva Convention (Art. 33(1)), contracting states should not expel or return a person “to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. According to this principle, people rescued at sea must be taken to a place of safety “where the survivors’ safety of life is not threatened [and] where their basic human needs can be met”.IMO, Resolution MSC.167(78), Guidelines on the Treatment of Persons Rescued At Sea, 20 May 2004 (6.12 and seq.)

In this instance, the 23 people were not disembarked in either Malta or Italy, despite these being the closest places of safety to the position where they were rescued, at 159 and 146 nautical miles away, respectively. Instead the rescued people were forcibly taken 760 nautical miles 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.

As organisations engaging in SAR activities at sea, we denounce the forcible transfer of these 23 people to Egypt and call for consequences to Malta’s blatant violations of maritime and international law.

Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Médecins Sans Frontières and Sea-Watch 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.

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Press Release 28 March 2023