Migrants should not be sacrificed for the nation’s well-being

14 April 2020

Malta, 14 April 2020 – We are shocked at Malta’s announcement that our ports are closed to persons rescued at sea. This will result in either people stranded out at sea for days, possibly weeks, or in their return to Libya, where they will probably face atrocious human rights violations. It is unacceptable for Malta to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to shelve its human rights obligations and endanger the lives of men, women and children.
We fully appreciate the enormous challenges Malta is currently facing in securing public health. We also understand that, in order to protect the nation from this serious threat, Malta must adopt general measures that would otherwise be deemed unlawful due to their limitation of our fundamental human rights. Under these circumstances, it is also our collective duty to comply with these measures and cooperate with the authorities despite limitations imposed on, for example our rights to privacy and free movement.

Yet we are also keen to underline that emergency scenarios do not grant Malta the authority to entirely shelve its human rights obligations. There are minimum standards that must always be met, a threshold that no State is ever permitted cross. We fear that Malta is exploiting the public health emergency to deprive migrants of their human dignity, adopting measures veiled as public health protection but having the effect of sacrificing migrants for Malta’s safety.

International law is clear: under no circumstances is Malta permitted to return persons to a territory where their lives and safety would be at risk. A public health emergency does not allow Malta to abandon people out at sea as it does not exonerate Malta from its responsibility to ensure that rescued persons are not returned to Libya. On a moral level, the decision to close our ports clearly positions the nation’s safety, that may certainly be guaranteed through safe disembarkation and shelter measures, far above the lives of those men, women and children who fled their homes and are desperately attempting to reach safety. We find this approach unlawful and despicable.

Migrants are also being detained in breach of their fundamental human rights, the public health emergency further strengthening a detention regime that was last year declared to be illegal by Malta’s Courts. With returns to countries of origin and transfers to other EU Member States put on hold, the legal basis to detain hundreds of people is as thin as ever. Together with being manifestly illegal, the detention of hundreds in confined spaces with hardly any access to running water, fresh air, soap and privacy is a public health risk of enormous proportions. Alternatives do exist, yet it is not clear if the authorities have explored them in any way. Malta is responsible for the safety of all detained persons, yet again the authorities are excluding migrants from their understanding of ‘public health’. Again, this approach is unlawful and despicable.

We express our serious concern at the way migrants are treated as disposable members of our community. Whilst we appreciate Malta’s current challenges, we nonetheless insist that migrants must not be sacrificed for the nation’s wellbeing. National emergencies should be overcome with solidarity and compassion. We therefore urge Malta to ensure the rescue and disembarkation of persons within its responsibility and to revise the situation of hundreds of detained persons.

Statement of the following NGO’s working with migrants and refugees:
Aditus foundation

African Media Association in Malta

The Critical Institute

Cross Culture International Foundation

Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants

Intergra Foundation

Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta)


Malta Emigrants’ Commission

Migrant Women Association Malta

People for Change Foundation

SOS Malta