VALLETTA (Reuters) - Europe’s leading human rights body urged Malta on Thursday to allow disembarkation of more than 400 migrants being held on four former tour group boats just outside the Mediterranean island’s territorial waters.
Some of the migrants have been held at sea for more than a month after being rescued from unseaworthy boats north of Libya from which they set out to reach Europe. Malta, which chartered the tourism boats, insists it cannot let them land because its ports have been closed since the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
“The situation of more than 400 persons kept on private ships just outside Malta’s territorial waters is unsustainable and requires immediate action,” Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.
Malta also says most commitments from fellow European Union member states to take in some migrants reaching its shores have not been kept and its holding centres are being overwhelmed.
Women and children have, however, been allowed to disembark on humanitarian grounds. The condition of the men left on the boats remains unclear, though photographers who managed to approach one boat said those aboard appeared in good health.
Last month, the Malta government chartered a fishing vessel to rescue some migrants at sea and take them back to Libya, drawing strong criticism from rights groups.
“Any challenges notwithstanding, it remains paramount that no action by Council of Europe member states results, either directly or indirectly, in the return of migrants at sea to places where they face serious human rights violations,” Mijatović said.
Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Mark Heinrich