13 asylum seekers are stuck aboard a commercial ship off Malta
VALETTA, Malta, Oct. 22 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has expressed growing concern about an international impasse that has left 13 men who claim to be Turkish Kurds stuck for nearly two weeks aboard a ship in the Mediterranean after being denied access to the asylum system in Italy and Malta.
The German-owned container vessel Lydia Oldendorff, registered in Antigua and Barbuda, has been moored in international waters about 15 miles off Malta since Oct. 15, said spokesman Rupert Colville in a news briefing in Geneva. He said the situation aboard the vessel was "extremely tense" because of limited quarters and that at least one of the men has reportedly attempted suicide.
He said UNHCR is increasingly concerned about the situation and urged Malta and Italy "to act in accordance with their responsibilities under international law without further delay."
The vessel had sailed from Mersin in Turkey and on Oct. 9 docked in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro where the asylum seekers, including two believed to be 13 and 15 years old, were found hiding in a container that had been unloaded from the ship.
The men were reportedly taken to a police station in Gioia Tauro, where they said they attempted to apply for asylum but were not allowed to do so. The police then put the men back on the container ship, which subsequently proceeded to its next port of call, Valetta in Malta.
Although the ship was permitted to dock in Valetta on Oct. 14 and disembark some cargo, the asylum seekers were not allowed ashore. The ship's next destination was back to Turkey - possibly the men's country of origin.
"Returning an asylum seeker to his country of origin without hearing his or her claim is against the fundamental principles of international refugee law and may amount to refoulement," said Colville, referring to the illegal expulsion of a refugee to his or her home country.
UNHCR's office in Berlin was contacted by the ship's owners last weekend, and since then UNHCR has been engaged in a dialogue with authorities in Italy and Malta in an attempt to end the impasse. The owner of the ship has agreed to delay its scheduled journey at the cost of heavy penalties for delayed cargo delivery in the hope that the situation would be swiftly resolved.
Colville said under European Union law, Italy would appear to have responsibility for assessing the men's asylum claims. Under the terms of the EU Dublin Regulation, they can be disembarked in Malta and then transferred to Italy. Alternatively, the owner has said that he is prepared to send his ship back to Italy, providing he receives clear assurances within the next 36 hours from the Italian authorities that the 13 asylum seekers will be disembarked.
"The 13 men have made three attempts to request asylum via faxes to the Maltese authorities, but to no avail," Colville said.
The owner has flown to Malta and spent Thursday night on the boat. UNHCR has sent two staff members to Malta who are closely monitoring the situation, in addition to negotiating with the authorities. The asylum seekers, 16 crew and four extra security guards flown in from England are living in very overcrowded conditions aboard the vessel. The owner told UNHCR by satellite phone from the boat this morning that the atmosphere on board has grown so tense that he is afraid some unfortunate incident could occur at any moment.