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Migrants’ human rights - Katrine Camilleri

The saga of the MV Lifeline is finally over, or so it seems. After a flurry of diplomatic efforts, a solution was found. Some European States, in an unusual gesture of concrete solidarity, agreed to take the migrants on board who qualify for international protection.

The government has been rightly praised for its efforts and for allowing the migrants to disembark in Malta after days at sea.

As the saga unfolded, much was made of the refusal of the captain of the Lifeline to hand over the men, women and children in his care to the Libyan coast guard.

The government maintained that he had violated international law – presumably the rules on rescue at sea – by his refusal to obey ‘lawful orders’ and that it was this refusal, and nothing else, that led to the vessel being stranded at sea with over 230 people on board for six days.

The captain and crew defended their actions, saying the violation of international law would be to hand over the migrants to the Libyan authorities, because for them Libya is not a safe harbour.

I’d say they were right.

Migrants arriving in Europe through the central Mediterranean route tell us repeatedly that Libya is a dangerous and inhospitable place, where their safety is anything but guaranteed.

Having worked with migrants arriving through this route for 18 years, I feel I can safely say that the conditions for migrants in Libya have not improved.

If anything, over the years they have become much worse with Libya’s descent into lawlessness and violence. To date, the country is torn apart by civil strife and, in the absence of a central government that effectively exerts control over national territory, is unable even to ensure the protection of its own citizens, many of whom are seeking protection abroad.

What’s more, it is impossible to apply for asylum in Libya.

In interviews conducted by JRS in 2017, asylum seekers arriving in Europe through Libya talked about the horrific conditions there. It is clear they were completely at the mercy of the smugglers and militias who control the irregular migration route to Europe. All of them agree that “life is cheap in Libya” and so they live in constant fear of what might happen.

A UNHCR study last April found “a deeply worrying deterioration in the health of new arrivals from Libya, with more people arriving extremely weak, thin and in general poor health condition”.

The ultimate good is to ensure that the human rights of all are respected and human dignity protected

Human rights law, enshrined not only in legally binding conventions but also in our Constitution, prohibits States from sending people to a country where there is a real risk they will face torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. As the supreme law, its dictates override the provisions of any other law.

Over the years, there have been cases involving decisions of the Maltese and Italian governments to return or push back migrants to Libya. European courts have ruled that such practices violated migrants’ human rights, because their safety and access to protection in Libya could not be guaranteed.

Yet we are told the order given to the captain was lawful and that he was the one violating the law. It is impossible not to question the legitimacy of this statement.

There could be several legal arguments for or against Malta’s position.

However, these arguments threaten to obscure the central question: are we ever morally justified in closing our doors to people in search of protection because another country is legally responsible for them when we know very well that they will face unspeakable violations of their human rights there?

The ultimate good is not to uphold the law narrowly and selectively and at all costs – particularly if the hotly defended law is one of many complex and apparently competing rules – but to ensure that the human rights of all are respected and human dignity protected.

Seen from this perspective, it is difficult to see the actions of the captain and crew of the Lifeline as contrary to law.

Quite the contrary: they put the safety of the people in their care first and firmly stood their ground, refusing to give in to orders that would compromise this stand, even in the face of threats of legal action.

They showed not only rare courage and true commitment to the European values of solidarity and respect for fundamental human rights but also respect for the law, the one that protects the life and dignity of all of us simply because we are human.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

Would that we all had the moral courage to stand, as the Lifeline did, in favour of human life and dignity.

Katrine Camilleri is director of the Jesuit Refugee Service.

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