Two U.N. agencies on Thursday called on Malta and other European countries to speed up efforts to bring to dry land some 160 rescued refugees and migrants from Libya, who remain at sea aboard two private vessels after two weeks.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) warned that direct or indirect state involvement through the commercial Captain Morgan vessels in the return of the rescued migrants and refugees to Libya might violate international law.
"UNHCR and IOM unequivocally reiterate that no one rescued at sea should be returned to Libya," said the statement, citing, "the misery and risk to life posed by intensifying conflict, arbitrary detention, and widespread human rights violations, amongst other factors, meaning it cannot be considered a place of safety."
Necessary health measures undermine reception capacities in some Mediterranean states due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, prompting the U.N. agencies to offer support for the effective and speedy processing of new arrivals.
A separate group of 21 people, mostly families, women and children, were already evacuated and disembarked in Malta several days ago, said the UNHCR.
"It is important to disembark the remaining people as soon as possible, as they have been on board the vessel for some two weeks – the standard quarantine period for COVID-19 – without any clarity on disembarkation," explained the U.N. agency adding: "It is unacceptable to leave people at sea longer than necessary."
The UNHCR and IOM noted that the Mediterranean countries had been at the forefront of receiving sea arrivals in recent years and that their efforts, along with nongovernmental organizations' search and rescue vessels, had prevented many tragic deaths.
"However, the UNHCR and IOM are also deeply concerned about reports that States have been ignoring or delaying responses to distress calls, especially amid a sharp decrease in state-led and NGO search and rescue capacity," said the statement.
"States must make every effort to promptly rescue people in distress, as a delay of even a few minutes could make the difference between life and death," it added.
Public health measures such as mandatory time-limited quarantines, medical screening and physical distancing must be applied without discrimination and within the specified national health protocol, said the agencies.
"States must continue to disembark people rescued at sea, in line with international maritime law obligations and ensure access to asylum and humanitarian assistance," the statement said.