Rescue groups say Malta coordinated the return of 500 migrants to Libya instead of saving them

FILE - Members of the Maltese armed forces escort the catamaran carrying Pope Francis and leaving Valletta's harbor for Gozo in Malta Saturday, April 2, 2022. Rescue groups are accusing the European Island nation of Malta of coordinating the return of around 500 people to Libya where they were subsequently imprisoned, in violation of international maritime law. (Andreas Solaro/Pool via AP, File) (Andreas Solaro, AP)

BARCELONA – A group of non-governmental organizations dedicated to rescuing migrants in the central Mediterranean is accusing the European island nation of Malta of coordinating the return of around 500 people to Libya where they were subsequently imprisoned, in violation of international maritime law.

The group of migrants, which included 55 children and pregnant women, had been trying to reach Europe on May 23 aboard a rusty iron fishing vessel when they reported to Alarm Phone - a hotline for migrants in distress - that they were adrift and taking in water, the NGOs said in a statement.

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People smugglers have increasingly packed migrants and refugees into old and dangerous fishing vessels that set out from Libya to Italy or Malta.

Migrants aboard the vessel shared their GPS location with Alarm Phone showing they were in international waters in an area of the Mediterranean where Malta is responsible for search and rescue.

Despite repeated requests for help sent to Maltese authorities, the migrants were reportedly taken back to Benghazi in eastern Libya three days later, Alarm Phone said, citing relatives of the migrants.

“Instead of bringing people who had tried to escape from the extreme violence people on the move experience in Libya to a place of safety, … (the Rescue Coordination Center of) Malta - decided to organize a mass pushback by proxy at sea, forcing 500 people across 330km into a Libyan prison,” read the joint statement issued by Alarm Phone, Sea-Watch, Mediterranea Saving Humans and EMERGENCY on Monday.

The Maltese Armed Forces responsible for search and rescue operations did not immediately respond to the AP's questions sent by email or answer the phone.

The International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency told the Associated Press that 485 people were reportedly brought back to Benghazi by a vessel belonging to the self-styled Libyan National Army, a force in the east of the country led by military commander Khalifa Hifter. The UN agencies could not immediately confirm it was the same group of migrants reported by Alarm Phone.

The vessel that intercepted the 485 migrants, the Tareq Bin Zeyad, is named after a militia led by Hifter’s son. In a report last year, Amnesty International accused the Tareq Bin Zeyad militia of subjecting "thousands of Libyans and migrants to brutal and relentless abuses since 2016.”

In their statement Monday, the NGOs said the Tareq Bin Zeyad had been spotted navigating in “peculiar patterns” close to the last known location of the boat in distress on May 24, suggesting the militia was looking for it.

Separately, eastern Libyan forces said over the weekend they had intercepted a large vessel carrying over 800 migrants, including entire families and children. The migrants were brought back to Libyan shores in Benghazi on May 26, three days after their vessel broke down in the Mediterranean.

In a video posted by the same east-based forces on May 27 showing the disembarkation of migrants intercepted at sea, one migrant interviewed says that the vessel broke down off Maltese shores, and that the Libyan navy rushed to rescue them. The AP could not independently confirm if this was the same vessel that had reached out to the NGOs near Malta.

Both the IOM and the UNHCR have repeatedly condemned the return of migrants and refugees to Libya, saying the lawless nation should not be considered a safe place for disembarkation as required by international maritime law.

Migrants returned to Libya are subject to arbitrary detention, extortion, torture and enforced disappearances by militias and human traffickers, in what a UN panel of experts said may amount to crimes against humanity.

Human rights organizations have long accused Malta of a policy of “non-assistance” and of colluding with Libyan forces, who are trained and funded by the European Union, to take back the migrants.

Alarm Phone said it was contacted by relatives of some of the intercepted migrants on May 26 to denounce their detention in Benghazi.

“The people fled wars and prisons in Syria, and now, unfortunately, they have been returned to Libya,” the statement read, quoting one relative.

Associated Press journalist Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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