Times of Malta
Thursday, July 22, 2010
by: Kurt Sansone
‘Better to die at sea than return to Libya’A Somali man rescued by an army patrol boat is alleging that his pregnant wife was transferred to a Libyan coastguard vessel during the joint operation on Saturday, which has raised eyebrows among humanitarian groups.
Speaking to The Times through an interpreter from the Safi detention centre, the man said his wife, who is seven months pregnant, was probably now in a Tripoli jail along withthe 26 other migrants who were transferred to the Libyan vessel.
“I told the Maltese soldiers that my wife was on the Libyan boat but they kept insisting I also board the Libyan ship and identify her.
“I refused because I knew that both of us would be sent back to Libya, losing all hope of getting out of that place,” the man, one of 28 migrants who were brought to Malta, said.
However, the army yesterday denied the allegation and a spokesman for the Office of the Prime Minister said there were no grounds for an inquiry since “none of the allegations are corroborated by the AFM reports of the operation carried out last Saturday.”
The army spokesman said none of the individuals who embarked aboard the AFM vessel at anytime during the rescue operation, transit to Malta or subsequent police interviews drew the attention of any Maltese official that he or she had originally been accompanied by a spouse or partner from whom he or she had subsequently been separated.
“In the three cases where soldiers were made aware that people who boarded the Maltese patrol boat were accompanied by spouses, these were identified and reunited with their respective partners on board the AFM vessel,” the spokesman said.
The issue was also raised by the Jesuit Refugee Service that expressed “grave concern” about the return of the 27 Somali asylum seekers to Libya.
“It seems that families were separated in this operation, with one member of the family in Malta and the other in Libya; a situation which naturally causes great distress and which no one would willingly choose,” Fr Cassar said, shedding serious doubt on whether Libya could be considered a safe port of call given the impossibility of obtaining effective protection there.
Fr Cassar said that although the circumstances surrounding the rescue were still not clear his organisation found it hard to accept without questioning the assertion that, having risked everything to leave Libya, “half the migrants meekly volunteered to go back”.
Libya is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention that safeguards the rights of asylum seekers and on Tuesday the UN High Commission for Refugees also shed doubt on the army’s claim that migrants chose to go to Libya voluntarily.
The army has so far refused to divulge the criteria used to determine how the migrants were separated simply reiterating that 27 migrants “voluntarily embarked on board the Libyan vessel”.
According to migrants, Maltese soldiers initially took on board those who appeared weak, including a mother and child, but insisted with the rest they board the Libyan vessel.
The migrants claimed they were led to believe that the ship, which had on board some Italian-speaking personnel, would take them to Italy.
“At one point, one of our friends who had boarded the ship realised that there were also Libyans and started shouting. They were treated roughly and a group of us who were still on the dinghy refused to budge. We insisted we be taken on board the Maltese vessel instead,” migrants recounted yesterday. At one point, soldiers also allegedly threatened to leave them stranded in the middle of the sea if they did not board the Libyan ship.
“We told them it would be better for us to be left to die in the sea than return to Libya because that place is like hell,” they said, insisting that about nine women, some of who were pregnant, were transferred to the Libyan ship.
The army also flatly denied these allegations insisting that no AFM personnel attempted to provide false information to any rescued person regarding the eventual point of disembarkation.
“At no point in time did AFM personnel attempt to encourage, cajole or force any person to embark aboard the Libyan vessel,” the spokesman said.
The migrants recounted how the dinghy had started to take in water early on in the journey when lights on the Libyan coast were still visible at a distance. At the time, they had some 25 jerry cans each with 20 litres of fuel on board.
“Instead of returning to Libya we preferred to continue with our north-bound voyage. When we were in international waters we contacted the Maltese rescue centre and sometime after a helicopter hovered above us. The Maltese patrol boat and the Libyan ship arrived on scene at the same time,” they recounted.
The army reiterated that the principle behind all search and rescue operations was to ensure the safety of human life, regardless of the origins of the persons being rescued or the rescuing units.
“It is pertinent to point out that, in total, 22 men and five women – three claimed to be pregnant, another stated she was unwell and a fifth said she was the child’s mother – and a child who required medical attention, embarked upon the P-52 from the migrants’ dinghy,” the spokes-man said.
Source: Times of Malta