LONDON — Malta has been forced to cancel the forced return of dozens of Somali migrants to Libya, after an emergency ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The EU has criticized the attempted repatriation, but Malta has accused its European partners of a lack of solidarity. It comes after the Pope visited an Italian island earlier this week that's received thousands of migrants.
Tired, hungry and dehydrated, 68 migrants who'd set sail from Libya were rescued by Maltese patrol boats Wednesday 50 kilometers off the coastline, after their vessel lost power. It's the second migrant boat to arrive in as many days.
Maltese authorities had intended to send two planes back to Libya carrying 45 Somali migrants who had arrived Tuesday. But the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling banning the repatriations.
The migrants must be given the chance to apply for asylum, says Katrine Camilleri, a Maltese lawyer from the Jesuit Refugee Service.
"They were well within Maltese jurisdiction, so all our national obligations and also our obligations in terms of European law and the European Convention on Human Rights clearly apply. Libya is unable to guarantee protection from cruel and degrading treatment or punishment to migrants in its territory," said Camilleri.
Authorities say more than 400 migrants have arrived on the island in the past week, including babies, pregnant women and three men with gunshot wounds. Most are Eritrean or Somali.
The European Court of Human Rights declared illegal in 2009 the practice of so-called 'push back' - where migrants are forced to return where they came from.
Malta's prime minister told reporters that the repatriations would send a 'message that we are not pushovers'.
"Given the situation in Libya, we believe that forced returns or push backs are not an option," said Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
Malta has accused the European Union of a lack of solidarity in failing to help with the refugee influx.
The United Nations says around 8,400 refugees have landed in Italy and Malta so far this year - double the number in the same period last year.
"It is really important to recognize the important work that the Italian Coast Guard and the Maltese armed forces are doing in preventing more tragedies in the Mediterranean," said Mehecic. "And just for comparison, last year we had about 500 deaths registered at sea. This year in the first six months, only 40, and it's all thanks to the good coordination effort of rescue at sea," he said.
On Monday a flotilla of fishing boats welcomed Pope Francis to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where tens of thousands of migrants have landed in recent years.
Pope Francis gave a mass to commemorate the thousands of migrants who have died on the journey.
"I thought I needed to come here today to pray," he said. "To carry out a gesture of closeness and to re-awaken our consciousness, so what has happened never happens again, never again please."
The summer months traditionally see a surge in migrant arrivals fleeing war and poverty at home. The vessels are often hugely overcrowded and in poor condition. Many do not reach their destination.