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Malta calls for urgent EU intervention in Libya to stop migrants amidst accusations of abandoning people at sea

The Maltese government is calling for an urgent intervention in Libya to stop migrants trying to reach Europe. In a letter addressed to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell, the Maltese Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo and Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri also proposed the launch of an “immediate humanitarian mission” worth €100 million in Libya to help stem the flow of illegal migrants during the coronavirus pandemic.

Valletta warned that “over 650,000 people await to leave Libyan shores for Europe,” adding that “there are all the ingredients for a major humanitarian disaster waiting to happen, as desperate people look at the Mediterranean Sea as their only escape.”

To tackle the escalating crisis, they wrote that the EU needs to “boost the empowerment of the Libyan Coast Guard in enhancing the control of its borders, as well as concretely ensuring that Libya represents a safe port for the disembarkation of migrants.” Malta also requests the EU launch an immediate €100 million humanitarian mission in Libya providing food, medicines and health care equipment “today and not tomorrow” as “the only sustainable and realistic option to avoid this crisis and save the lives of men, women and children.”

The letter, dated on Monday 13 April 2020, urged the High Representative, “the College of Commissioners, the EU Institutions, and the European Union as a whole” to urgently mobilise “all political, legal and economic tools available to stabilise Libya in the immediate term.”

The desperate situation for migrants is further complicated as certain front-line EU member states, including Italy and Malta, have closed their ports as they face a considerable threat from Covid-19, and limited medical and security resources are over-stretched. On Saturday 14 April, Malta banned rescue ships from bringing migrants to the island and last week, the Italian government said it would block the arrival of migrant rescue ships until the end of the coronavirus emergency.

NGOs have accused the EU of abandoning people at sea after failing to respond this weekend to information that four boats, carrying 258 migrants between them, were in distress. Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants in distress at sea, lost contact with three of the boats between Friday and Sunday afternoon. About 47 people on the fourth boat were rescued on Monday morning by SMH, a Spanish NGO. In calls made to Alarm Phone from the boat, which was at sea in freezing temperatures for four nights, migrants said five people were unconscious and that a pregnant woman and her seven-year-old child were in need of urgent medical help.

The Italian unit of Sea-Watch, the German NGO, tweeted on Sunday: “Left to die alone on the day of Easter by a Europe that speaks emptily of solidarity towards people who suffer.”

On Sunday 12 April, 23 Italian MPs and three MEPs urged Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to act.

“We implore you to act quickly to help those who need to be rescued at sea. We hear news of a shipwreck, of boats laden with humanity, desperately trying to reach the European coast. We ask the Italian government to intervene before it is too late.”

In the letter to the EU’s High Representative, the two Maltese ministers highlighted that Malta has been dealing with migratory problems since 2002 and “consistently acted constructively in seeking a European solution to what is a European problem” but that, at present, Malta’s “migrant reception facilities are full and the disembarkation of more migrants will make it impossible to enforce the procedures currently in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19”. The current situation, they write, is increasingly difficult and Malta is “facing a rapidly deteriorating situation.”

“Unless the EU acts now we risk witnessing an already-difficult situation becoming worse, potentially resulting in exacerbated human suffering, and avoidable loss of human life,” the letter states.

Bartolo wants a paper of options to be discussed at an emergency Foreign Affairs Council convened at the earliest opportunity and before the upcoming European Council.

Finishing the letter with a stern rebuke to the EU, Bartolo and Camilleri said “the time when Europe could comfortably afford to indefinitely postpone decisions concerning Libya and Mediterranean migration has ended.”

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