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UN agency questions 'voluntary' transfer

UNHCR concerned about migrants sent to Libya

Migrants rescued at sea and transferred to a Libyan coastguard vessel in a joint operation with the Armed Forces of Malta over the weekend could have been misled and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees doubts whether they had actually volunteered to do so.

The 27 immigrants transferred to the Libyan ship formed part of a group of 55 Somalis, who were on board a dinghy that was sinking on Saturday. The other 28 migrants, including a pregnant woman and a child, were transferred to the AFM patrol boat during a rescue operation, arriving in Malta on Sunday.

Migrant sources said that on board the Libyan vessel there were Italian-speaking people, and that could have possibly misled the immigrants to believe they could be heading for Italy if they boarded.

In a statement after the incident, the AFM gave no details on how the group of migrants was divided but the matter raised eyebrows among humanitarian organisations because Libya is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention that safeguards the rights of asylum seekers.

The government yesterday insisted the migrants who embarked on the Libyan vessel did so "voluntarily". It denied there was any change in policy when asked whether Malta was now actively pushing back migrants, similar to the controversial policy adopted by Italy.

"The priority of any search and rescue operation carried out on the high seas is to safeguard the life and well-being of people in distress by bringing them to a safe port in an effective manner without incurring loss of life. This principle was followed in the latest operation and any SAR operation carried out by the AFM," a government spokesman said.

The UNHCR called into question the army's claim that migrants volunteered to be transferred onto the Libyan vessel.

"To UNHCR, it seems highly unlikely that people who have taken great risks to leave would choose to board a ship if they were aware that it would be returning them to Libya," a spokesman said, insisting the organisation was concerned about the fate of the individuals who were returned to Libya.

The UNHCR was expelled from Libya last month without explanation.

"The Maltese authorities responded appropriately to the needs of some of the people on the boat by bringing them to safety in Malta where their individual claims can be assessed. The UNHCR has visited the newly-arrived Somalis who appear to be in reasonably good condition after the strenuous journey," the spokesman added.

The UNHCR appealed to all states involved to continue ensuring people rescued at sea who may be in need of international protection would obtain access to safe territory and asylum procedures.

Italy and Libya signed an agreement last year to jointly patrol Libya's coastal waters and immediately repatriate rescued migrants.

The agreement stemmed the flow of migrants but has been heavily criticised by human rights groups on grounds that asylum seekers are not given the opportunity to have their claims assessed properly.

The government spokesman yesterday said the Libyans' participation in Saturday's SAR mission was "a direct result of the Italo-Libyan agreement and the working relations that Malta has built with both countries".

The group of 28 migrants brought to Malta over the weekend was the first such arrival in almost a year. The rescue operation happened some 44 nautical miles to the south east of Malta.

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