In years past, the two countries often portrayed migrants as threats to society or a burden on the economy. But this time, both governments are claiming that the spread of Covid-19 makes their countries too dangerous to welcome those stranded at sea.
Italy cited that reason before issuing a formal decree to close its port to search and rescue ships on 7 April. Malta followed two days later, arguing that it couldn’t guarantee the rescue of migrants given the severity of the coronavirus.
While the disease has hit Italy particularly hard – more than 28,000 people have died to date – rights groups accuse both countries of using the pandemic to abandon their obligations under international law. The crisis spawned by Covid-19, they argue, requires public health measures that are proportionate and based on medical science.
Imposing a blanket ban on asylum doesn’t adhere to either criterion. All it does is abandon people at sea.
As soon as the ports closed, multiple dinghies sailed off the Libyan coast. At the time, the rescue vessel Aylan Kurdi – named after the Syrian toddler who washed up on Europe’s doorstep in 2015 – was stuck in Italy. Despite having 150 exhausted migrants onboard, Rome was preventing the vessel from docking for 10 days.
During that time, more than 1,000 migrants were stranded at sea. The Libyan coast guard – a group of militias paid by the EU to intercept distressed migrant boats – eventually returned half of the migrants back to the wartorn north African country.
Libya’s internationally recognised government then announced that it was also closing its ports due to the severity of the pandemic.
Soon after, a Spanish rescue boat which was heading home, rerouted in response to a mayday call. The vessel ended up saving the lives of 43 migrants, all of them exhausted and semi-conscious after being stranded at sea without food and water for six days.
But the Aita Mari couldn’t save everybody. At least five people were announced dead and seven were reported missing.
The European Border Agency, Frontex also claimed that one boat – that went off the radar – docked in the southern Italian island of Sicily. But the NGO Medical Sans Frontiers (MSF) suspects that the boat may have capsized, killing all 85 people on board.
Even then, the EU refused to condemn Italy and Malta for spawning the latest crisis in the Mediterranean. The EU’s stance once again exposed its lack of integrity. All the bloc had to do was cite that nowhere in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights – the EU’s highest legal document – does it state that a health crisis compromises the right to asylum.
The Italian and Maltese authorities also appear to in short supply of common sense. There is no question that the pandemic requires states and rescue vessels to take added precautions during search and rescue missions. Migrants, for instance, should be tested for Covid-19 if possible, and quarantined once they disembark. Ships and port stations should also be regularly disinfected.
That said, arguing that the Mediterranean Sea – where more than 22,000 migrants have died in the last 20 years – is safer than Italy or Malta is disingenuous at best, and criminal at worst.
Perhaps the bigger hypocrisy here is that Italy and Malta are claiming that Libya is safer than their respective countries.
Never mind that migrants returned to Libya are locked up in harrowing detention centres where abuse, torture and extortion are rife. Those same detention centres are exceptionally susceptible to a Covid-19 outbreak due to extreme overcrowding and a lack of access to facilities. Still, most migrants maintain that nothing is more dangerous than the militias ruling the country.
For more than a year now, rogue General Khalifa Haftar’s self-described Libyan National Arab Army (LNAA) has battled with militias backing the government in Tripoli. Trapped in the middle are migrants who have no other recourse but to cross the sea.
Worst still, the pandemic has prompted the UN refugee agency to suspend resettlement, in a move that will surely force more refugees to transit through Libya.
That hasn’t stopped Malta from audaciously lobbying the EU to provide Tripoli with a $100 million in aid in an effort to persuade Libya to reopen its ports. But sending migrants back to Libya isn’t the solution, neither now nor was it before the pandemic.
The more sensible approach – aligned with Europe’s human rights obligations – would see the EU help Italy and Malta uphold their legal responsibility to provide asylum. That should include an agreement between all EU states to take in a quota of asylum seekers. It should also consist of EU states deploying vessels for search and rescue missions, not impeding and slandering NGOs that have assumed that responsibility.
Adopting these measures requires a minimum commitment to saving lives, yet Italy and Malta, along with the EU’s blessing, remain all too willing to let people drown.