by Chris Scicluna
Thursday, July 11, 2013
VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta cancelled two flights to return migrants to Libya after the European Court of Human Rights issued an interim measure banning repatriation.
The court's written decision was handed to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Tuesday evening as he addressed parliament about his concern over a growing migration crisis.
He said more than 400 migrants, many from Somalia and Eritrea, had arrived on the island of 400,000 people in less than a week, with many having started their journey across the Mediterranean in Libya.
Another three boats were being monitored, he said.
The summer months usually see a steady stream of often rickety migrant boats arriving on the shores of Malta and the island of Lampedusa, off Sicily, seen as a gateway to Europe for migrants fleeing war and poverty at home.
The European court's order was issued on Tuesday after an emergency request by non-governmental organisations citing media reports that the government was planning to send the migrants back to Libya.
The groups said this amounted to so-called "push back" - a practice declared illegal by the court last year after it was used by Italy in 2009 under then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Supporters of the groups had gathered outside police headquarters, threatening to block buses taking migrants to the airport.
Muscat said Malta would respect the decisions of the court and international treaties but would consider all options to safeguard its interests.
He confirmed his government had been in contact with the Libyan authorities about sending the migrants back to Libya, but denied it amounted to "push back".
"This is not push back, it is a message that we are not push-overs," he told the Times of Malta website.
Muscat accused the European Union was not showing solidarity with Malta over issue and had earlier warned that Malta was prepared to use its veto on unrelated issues in EU matters to bring about a change.
The EU commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, said that, according to EU and international obligations, all people arriving in EU territory were entitled to file an asylum request and to have a proper assessment of their situation.
She said the EU stood ready to increase support to Malta if it should face growing pressure from the influx.
(Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Alison Williams)