Restrictions against humanitarians rescuing migrant boats in the central Mediterranean put lives at risk and must be lifted immediately the UN human rights office said.
The appeal follows reports of failure to assist and even push back, vessels carrying desperate people on one of the world’s deadliest migration routes, amid fears and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The developments come as departures from Libya during the first quarter of the year rose fourfold over the same period in 2019.
“Reports that Maltese authorities requested commercial ships to push boats with migrants and refugees in distress back to the high seas are of particular concern,” Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN Human Rights High Commissioner, said.
“We are concerned humanitarian search and rescue vessels, usually patrolling the central Mediterranean, are prevented from supporting migrants in distress, when people attempting to make the journey from Libya to Europe are increasing,” he added.
Currently, no humanitarian vessels are operating in the central Mediterranean after Italy impounded the rescue ships Alan Kurdi and Aita Mari following a two-week offshore quarantine.
Alan Kurdi, operated by a German non-governmental organisation (NGO), is named after a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in September 2015. Aita Mari is run by a Spanish group.
“It is also alleged that administrative regulations and measures are used to impede the work of humanitarian NGOs,” Colville said.
“We call for restrictions on the work of rescuers to be lifted immediately. Such measures put lives at risk”.
COVID-19 and migrant interceptions
The UN human rights office (OCHR) called for a moratorium on all interceptions and returns to Libya, in accordance with its recently published guidelines on COVID-19 and migrants.
Despite the pandemic, search and rescue operations should be maintained and swift disembarkation ensured, in line with public health measures.
Colville pointed out international law protects migrants from being returned to dangerous environments, both Italy and Malta declared ports “unsafe” for disembarkation due to the virus.
Currently, at least three merchant vessels carrying migrants are affected.
While Maltese authorities allowed a small group ashore on humanitarian grounds, OHCHR said all migrants should disembark because the vessels are not suitable for long-term accommodation.
Last month, a vessel with 51 migrants aboard, including three children, was returned to Libya on a private boat after being picked up in Maltese waters. They were subsequently sent to a detention facility.
Colville said the migrants spent a week at sea, during which five passengers died and seven others went missing, all presumed drowned.
“We are also aware of claims that distress calls to maritime rescue co-ordination centres went unanswered or ignored. If true this calls into question the commitments of the states concerned to saving lives and respecting human rights.”