A Maltese government plan to send back Somali refugees from Libya has been halted, for now, by protests, just hours before their midnight Air Malta flight to Tripoli's military airport.
Dozens of people who had gathered outside the police HQ at Fontiana (just outside the capital Valletta's city gates) in a “stop the trucks” demo, cheered as they heard that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had issued an interim measure to stop the deportations.
Over 1,000 black African refugees fled Libya over two days in a mass escape by sea in dingies and rafts. Many of Libya’s country’s already-notorious detention centres are now possibly even more dangerous, taken over by armed militias who have survived the struggle for power between Gaddafi and anti-Gaddafi forces.
Malta rescued 170 of them on Monday 8 and Tuesday 9 July, but the government planned to return all but the “most vulnerable” until the ECHR intervened at the request of a coalition of anti-deportation and civil rights groups.
Malta’s Labour prime minister, Joseph Muscat, claimed, “This is not push-back, it is a signal we are not push-overs” — a reference to Silvio Berlusconi's 2003 “Push Back” agreement with Gaddafi to return 200 Somali and Eritrean refugees to Libya. The ECHR recently declared this Italian push back to be a violation of human rights, as asylum seekers were not interviewed and processed properly, and Maltese lawyers have challenged the government on this basis.
This has given the refugees a breathing space, but does not guarantee their safety. The weakness of a purely legalistic approach is exposed by the opposition National Party leader Dr. Simon Busitti hypocritically calling Muscat xenophobic — yet defending his own party’s 2003 decision to deport Eritrean refugees back to their dictator-led homeland on the grounds that international law was different then!
Meanwhile the small “Alternativva Demokratika” party has criticised PM Muscat for spoiling Malta’s “good name” in the world's eyes.