Maltese Justice and Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici is quoted by AP as saying that migrant boats leaving Libya “have the right of passage and nobody can stop them, not even our forces or a NATO ship. As long as [the boats] are not in distress, then [there] is no issue.”
While Mifsud Bonnici’s observation about the right of passage in international waters is technically correct, given that all or virtually all of the migrant boats that have left Libya in recent weeks have been severely overloaded, all migrant boats leaving North Africa under the current situation should be considered to be in distress and in need of rescue. Migrant boats departing from Libya with few exceptions must pass through the Maltese Search and Rescue Area and Malta should not avoid its rescue at sea obligations under international law by claiming that it is respecting a vessel’s right of passage. The UNHCR has called upon “states, commercial shipping companies and others present in the Mediterranean to consider that all boats leaving Libya for Europe are likely to require assistance.”
Click here for UNHCR statement.