UNHCR questions delays in rescue-at-sea operation off Malta

Briefing Notes, 8 June 2010

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 8 June 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is concerned about delays in a search-and-rescue operation on Sunday and Monday involving a boat carrying more than 20 people, mostly Eritreans, near Malta. Distress calls were received on Sunday evening, including by UNHCR, and passed to Maltese and Italian maritime authorities. It is unclear which country had search-and-rescue responsibility when the distress calls were first sent. According to information made available to UNHCR, the boat was only rescued late on Monday, and by Libyan vessels.

While the boat in distress was in or near Malta's search-and-rescue area and around 40 nautical miles only from Italy, it took some 24 hours for the rescue to take place. Malta and Italy relied on Libyan vessels to conduct the rescue inside Malta's search and rescue zone instead of intervening and taking the group to a closer and safer port. Three women and an eight-year-old child were on board. We understand that all the passengers have now been taken back to Libya where they started their journey.

Malta and Italy have high recognition rates for Eritreans. We are concerned about their access to international protection in Libya, which is not a signatory state to the 1951 Convention and has no domestic asylum system.