Robert Abela denies migrant ‘pushback’

Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela said on Friday that the return of a boatload of migrants to Libya on Easter Sunday was not a pushback but the country’s efforts to ensure that they arrived safely in a port that was still open.

The government is under pressure from international organizations for having coordinated the return of the migrants rescued by a Maltese fishing boat and handed them over to the Libyan coastguard on Easter Sunday. They claim Malta breached its international obligations as it knows that the migrants will, in all probability, face inhumane and degrading treatment once returned to camps in Libya.

At a press conference, Abela insisted that Malta had always respected and gone beyond its international obligations.

“There was no pushback… Had it not been Malta that coordinated the rescue, people would have died at sea,” said the PM.

“The EU passed with its Frontex plane but did not offer assistance. Others closed their ports. Malta also closed its ports but still coordinated the rescue operation and ensured that the migrants are taken to a port that is still open, thereby saving lives,” he said.

He explained that the Search and Rescue Convention stipulates the legal obligations of individual states that are not obliged to carry out the actual rescues but to coordinate such rescues. The obligations also state that countries can use their own assets or send private assets to rescue boats in distress.

Malta on Thursday rescued a group of migrants and commissioned a tourist ferry boat, currently at a standstill due to COVID-19, to house them until a solution to their disembarkation is found.

“We are ready to do anything to save lives. We have nothing to be ashamed of,” Abela said, adding that the cost for the Captain Morgan boat being used to temporarily house migrants outside Maltese waters will come from aid by the EU.

“We are not a safe port and we cannot guarantee our resources for rescues… We are obeying international rules,” he said.

The migration problem should not be “Malta’s alone,” he added, calling for the EU to intervene.