© Sea-Watch

«Whatever one’s views on migration – people dying at sea is just unacceptable» - Interview with Neil Falzon

Neil Falzon is a member of the board of ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exiles). He established the Maltese human rights NGO aditus foundation, of which he’s the Director. He is currently representing the Captain of the private search and rescue ship lifeline, Claus-Peter Reisch, who is alleged of not having his ship registered in a correct manner before entering Malta’s territorial waters. The ship Lifeline has been confiscated from the Maltese authorities. Before this, the Lifeline had to wait several days with 234 persons on board which were rescued in the Mediterranean until they were allowed to enter the Maltese port.

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The Lifeline mission in the Mediterranean began already in autumn 2017. Why is the captain accused now for allegedly not registering his ship properly?

Exactly! We’re not clear why the charges were brought only now. When the Prime Minister authorized the ship to enter Malta, he also requested an investigation into the ship’s operations. At the time, the Prime Minister referred to the ship’s registration, the nature of the ship’s activities at sea, and the Captain’s alleged refusal to obey orders when out at sea.

Are there any other charges – has the Lifeline violated maritime law or international conventions?

The charges brought by the prosecuting officer – an Immigration Inspector – relate specifically to the nature of the Lifeline’s registration. It is alleged that the ship’s Dutch registration does not permit it to enter Malta’s territorial waters. These are charges brought under national maritime law the Ports and Shipping Act, and the prosecuting officer is connecting them to provisions in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). Contrary to the statements made by the Prime Minister, no mention is made in the charges of the actual rescue operation, or the Captain’s exchanges with the Italian and Libyan coastguards. It’s really a matter of Malta’s recognition of the Lifeline’s Dutch certificate.

Why did Malta refuse the entry of the Lifeline-shipbut allowed it on a later stage? What happened in between?

From what we can understand, it looks like the ship was allowed in once Malta was able to secure the distribution of the rescued migrants to a number of countries. Only once Malta was consoled by the fact that it would not have to ‘carry the burden’ of the rescued persons, did it open its port for their disembarkation. It wasn’t really a humanitarian decision but a decision based purely on strategic and political considerations.

What is the aim of the procedure: Should the German captain be used as an example to scare off other NGOs? And if so; why?

In the same breadth that he called for an investigation into the Lifeline, the Prime Minister closed off Malta’s ports to NGO vessels. This means that the two are clearly linked. Malta wants to send a clear message: if you rescue migrants, don’t even try to come close to Malta. There’s no valid reason to close off Malta’s ports to NGOs vessels, and the Prime Minister’s excuse that this is being done to ensure compliance with maritime rules is just facile.

That would be a political show trial. What interest does Malta have in this?

Malta wants to show its European Union partners that, despite being a small nation at a high-risk border, it can be tough, bold and determined in protecting the EU’s border. It has volumes of points to gain by doing this. Again, there is no justifiable reason to block rescuing NGO vessels.

Who are the masterminds behind the accusations?

We believe the accusations are the result of the extremely negative political scenario in the Mediterranean. It’s difficult to pin them onto one or two individuals, but we’re quite sure the Prime Minister’s statements were pivotal in the matter.

What is the current “mood” in Malta towards migration and regarding the refusal of entry to SAR-ships?

Well the mood here shifts constantly, keeping in mind that we’re a very small nation with facing pretty much the same issues as every other nation. In relation to migration, the mood tends to be directly affected by boat arrivals. When the boats arrive, we see an immediate spike in stress, anger, fear and negative discourse. Over the past few years, when no boats arrived but refugees reached Malta invisibly and unreported by the media – they arrived plane – Malta revised its detention regime and adopted a national integration strategy! So the mood today is back to the angry one, as the threat of invasion from the sea is back and this time it’s facilitated by power-hungry, money-grabbing NGOs!

Yet we’ve also seen a growing group of concerned citizens, terribly upset at the fact that by closing Malta’s ports (sea and air) to rescuing NGOs, Malta has effectively signed the death sentence for so many people. We are consoled by this, to know that – whatever one’s views on migration – people dying at sea is just unacceptable, that we should behave better.

What would be the consequences of a conviction for the Lifeline mission and for the private rescue at sea as a whole?

The law states that a conviction could carry a fine of not more than €11,600, imprisonment for no longer that 12 months, or both. This would be terrible for the Captain, but it would also be a horrible blow to rescue at sea operations as it would concretize Malta’s threat to anyone rescuing refugees and migrants: don’t bring them here. In the past this threat was launched again fishing boats, and we were aware that some fishermen were reluctant to rescue persons in distress due to these threats and general uncertainty.

What could be a solution in your opinion to avoid more tragic deaths on the Mediterranean?

We have 5 straightforward points that we’ve been repeating almost ad nauseam for several years:

  1. Allow NGO vessels and planes to enter/leave ports and to promptly disembark the people they rescue.
  2. In Libya migrants’ lives, freedom and security are at risk. Do not relinquish rescue responsibilities to the Libyan coastguard. Do not disembark in Libya.
  3. Italy and Malta need to agree on disembarkation protocols.
  4. EU member states should assume shared responsibility of all refugees entering the EU.
  5. Create realistic possibilites of safe and legal passage to the EU for refugees and migrants.

Interview conducted by Adriana Romer, Head of Legal Section Protection Department