Malta – at the crossroads of central Mediterranean migration

By Keith Manara – General Manager at O.F. Gollcher & Sons Ltd, Lloyd’s Agent and P&I Correspondent at Malta.

One late afternoon, several years ago, whilst on an offshore installation in the North African sector, I had my first experience of an approaching grey dinghy full of refugees – I remember them shouting for water and directions to Italy!

The support vessels in the area assisted, but to this day I have no firm information as to what happened to all those in the flimsy dinghy.

Over 17,000 people have arrived in Italy and Malta so far this year by boat from Libya and Tunisia, a threefold increase compared to 20191.

For this year, the cumulative arrivals in Malta since 01 Jan 2020 to date are 2,012. This compares with 1,623 for the same period last year2.  Italy’s figures are 16,423 and 4,399, respectively. Unfortunately these figures do not take account of those missing or feared drowned at sea during the crossings.

At the time of writing this article, in Malta there is a Maersk tanker which has made the headlines for not being granted permission to disembark the twenty-seven migrants it rescued more than two weeks ago on 05 August! European countries have long been struggling to agree on how to deal with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. The coronavirus pandemic has made the situation in the central Mediterranean even more complicated.

There is a longstanding tradition at sea that vessels assist with rescue operations; notwithstanding the SOLAS and UN Refugee Conventions.

When rescuing refugees at sea, ship owners and operators are faced with the situation of having additional people to accommodate on board one of their vessels, the potential stress put on the crew not to mention delays.  All this in addition to what refugee cases typically include: diversion, victualing, medical supplies, port charges, tugs, disinfection etc.

Frontex’s (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) role in SAR operations is enshrined in its Regulation 2016/1624. Frontex is obliged to provide technical and operational assistance to Member States and non-EU countries in support of SAR operations that may arise during border surveillance operations at sea.

The European Union is working towards a Common European Asylum System and in 2011, EASO (European Asylum Support Office) was officially inaugurated in Malta. On 7 September 2012, EASO moved into its new premises located in the Grand Harbour of Valletta, Malta. In 2019, EASO and the Maltese authorities signed an operating plan for the deployment of asylum support teams and the provision of technical and operational assistance.

Frontex and EASO work closely together in the implementation of the hotspots approach, supporting Member States that experience disproportionate migratory pressures. Under the new 2020 Operating Plan, EASO will double its support to the Maltese authorities and, for the first time, provide support in terms of reception, including age assessment procedures and vulnerability assessments.

At the end of July, the Maltese Government issued an “expression of interest for a negotiated procedure for the leasing of an accommodation vessel” to serve the purpose of an isolation and quarantine facility at sea.  This was after four tourist ferry boats were chartered in May and June (by the Maltese Government) to host rescued migrants (due to the COVID pandemic).

In the background there have remained three private humanitarian organizations – Sea-Eye, Sea-Watch and SOS Mediterranean – which operate rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

All this as the fair weather is no doubt set to see more migrant departures from the north African coast.


1 Source UNHCR and IOM

2 Source IOM and National Authorities on 20 August 2020.



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