Malta has been denounced for helping the Libyan coastguard intercept a boat carrying some 100 asylum seekers towards the Italian island of Lampedusa in the latest spat between humanitarian organisations and the governments of countries overlooking the Mediterranean see.
The captain of the NGO vessel Mare Jonio said a Maltese military aircraft guided the Libyan coastguard to a migrant boat heading for Europe’s shores.
The boat was intercepted some 15 nautical miles away from Malta’s maritime search and rescue zone and brought back to Libya.
Beppe Caccia, head of mission on Mare Jonio – a vessel belonging to NGO group Mediterranea –accused the Maltese authorities of “repatriating” the migrants to a detention centres that are plagued with human rights abuses at a port in Libya.
“We denounce this repatriation to an unsafe port, where human rights are not respected… this was a grave violation of human rights and international conventions,” Mr Caccia told Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
According to the NGO, this was the second migrant boat rescued by the Libyan coastguard in the space of 24 hours. Another vessel carrying some 80 migrants was also intercepted and returned to the country, where at least 376 people have been killed and thousands displaced since fighting erupted last month.
Mediterranea, which offered to assist the boat, said the Italian authorities refused saying that both operations were being dealt with by the Libyan authorities.
“Rome does not dare say that the two operations are formally closed because evidently it does not wish to certify the work of the Libyan authorities and its militias, whose job is to take people back to prison,” Mr Caccia said.
He added that Italy’s strategy has been to put the blame on the government of Malta.
Malta and Italy have insisted over the past 18 months that the Libyan coastguard should be allowed to do its job within their area of competence, a position that has been heavily criticised by private rescue NGOs and human rights organisations.
The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) declared a state of emergency in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli in September 2018, less than a week after a UN cease-fire went into effect. Attempts to create a unity government have so far failed.
Rival armed groups, including the Libyan National Army's loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, militia groups and the forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), have continued to clash as all sides compete over access to oil fields and territorial control.
International NGOs have documented the abuses suffered by migrants in Libyan migrant centres, including rape, torture and food deprivation. The UN does not consider Libya a safe haven and has warned against sending migrants back to the country where they risk abuse and degrading treatment.
Mare Jonio left the Italian port of Marsala on Tuesday, having gained permission to sail as long as it does not engage in rescue operations. In March, the boat’s joint captains Pietro Marrone and Luca Casarini were indicted for the abetment of illegal immigrants.
The dispute broke out as Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the Eurosceptic League party, met with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban on Thursday in the border town of Roeszke, where a barricade blocks the access to migrants moving towards Europe.
“I praise prime minister Victor Orban who, rapidly and effectively, ensured the security of 600 kilometres along the frontier, blocking the access. The positions of the Italian and Hungarian government are the same,” Mr Salvini wrote on Facebook.
The visit came as the interior minister seeks to rally right-wing anti-immigration parties into a united front ahead of the European parliamentary elections in May.