Migrants on Malta’s ‘offshore prisons’ driven to hunger strikes and suicide attempts, NGO says

Valetta facing renewed accusations of refusing to rescue migrants at sea and co-ordinating pushbacks

File photo: Rescued migrants arrive in Malta. Reuters
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Dozens of migrants trapped on boats chartered by Malta and held at sea outside its territorial waters have launched hunger strikes and even attempted suicide due to their weeks-long confinement.

Alarm Phone, a refugee support group that provides a point of contact for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe and alerts rescue agencies if they are in distress, said migrants had reached out to it with “cries for help”.

The group reported that those on board had insufficient access to healthcare and food, and Alarm Phone called on Malta to end the "inhumane imprisonment" of the migrants.

Authorities in Malta chartered two ships this month from the Sliema-based pleasure cruise operator Captain Morgan to house nearly 200 migrants and refugees rescued at sea by the Maltese military and a private vessel.

Malta said at the start of this month that it will keep the migrants anchored offshore until the European Union can decide how to relocate them. The government has been paying €3,000 (Dh12,000) per day for each vessel.

Valetta has faced harsh criticism from refugee agencies over its treatment of people attempting to reach safety in the Mediterranean island country.

The government has drawn particular ire over its use of the hired vessels to deny migrants the right to claim protection on the islands. Alarm Phone on Tuesday described the ships as “offshore prisons”.

Accusations that Maltese authorities are refusing to rescue migrants in distress at sea resurfaced on Wednesday after video captured at sea appeared to show an armed forces patrol vessel turning away an overloaded boat at gunpoint.

The Armed Forces of Malta allegedly gave more than 100 struggling migrants fuel and provided GPS co-ordinates for nearby Italy after they refused to return to Libya.

The boat was believed to have made it to Malta’s territorial waters, which under international law would oblige rescue, but survivors said the Maltese forces had cited the coronavirus outbreak as the reason why they could not be taken to the island. Malta was quick to close off its ports as the pandemic hit.

The EU’s human rights commissioner earlier this month reminded Malta’s Prime Minister, Robert Abela, of his country’s duty to save lives at sea.

Dunja Mijatovic urged the authorities in Malta to investigate allegations that migrants had been disembarked in Libya despite reaching the apparent safety of Malta’s rescue zone.

And the United Nations voiced its concern over reports of co-ordinated pushbacks of migrant boats across the Mediterranean.

The UN and others have long warned that it is not safe for migrants to be returned to conflict-ravaged Libya, citing continued violence and the appalling conditions inside its migrant detention centres.

The central Mediterranean route remains one of the most perilous crossings for migrants trying to reach Europe but the number of people attempting the journey has risen sharply.

During the first three months of this year, departures from Libya increased four-fold compared with the same period in 2019.

So far this year at least 250 migrants have died on the Mediterranean routes.