Access to the territory and push backs


Country Report: Access to the territory and push backs Last updated: 10/07/24

2022 saw a dramatic decrease in the number of arrivals by sea, due to issues flagged below.


Arrivals by boat

An OHCHR report published in May 2021, covering the period from January 2019 to December 2020, confirmed numerous incidents of pushbacks orchestrated by the AFM and Malta’s failure to provide prompt assistance to migrants in distress in the central Mediterranean.[1]

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights made the same observations following her visit to Malta in October 2021. In her report published in January 2022,[2] the Commissioner stresses the need to step up Malta’s capacities and ensure effective co-ordination of search and rescue operations, stating that “Disagreements with other member states about disembarkation responsibilities should never be allowed to put human rights – including the right to life – at risk or exempt the authorities from their non-refoulement obligations.”

In January 2022, three international organisations accused Libyan militias of committing war crimes against migrants in detention centres and included Malta and Italy in their complaint for their support to Tripoli’s coast guard. Denouncing a pocket of impunity “at the gates of Europe,” the three NGOs accused Malta and Italy of denying migrants their right to claim asylum in Europe.[3]

A few months later, in April, Sea-Watch and FragDenStaat filed to sue Frontex at the EU’s general court for refusing to provide documents related to its working relations with the Libyan coast guard in Malta’s search and rescue zone in relation to a specific incident in July 2021.[4] Towards the end of the year, in November 2022, The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Sea-Watch filed a Communication to the International Criminal Court (ICC) calling for an investigation of Prime Minister Robert Abela and his predecessor Jospeh Muscat, among others, of the commission of crimes against humanity against migrants and refugees who have been intercepted at sea and systematically returned to and detained in Libya.[5]

Between January and December 2022, the UNHCR recorded 444 sea arrivals to Malta (12 persons were airlifted by AFM, at least 23 persons arrived spontaneously, whilst 409 persons were rescued by AFM at sea). This is a 48% decrease in arrivals compared to the same period last year. In a new trend during 2022, two boats that departed from Lebanon were rescued by the AFM in the Maltese SAR zone and disembarked in Malta. The top five nationalities arriving by sea to Malta were from Syria (26%), Bangladesh (53%), Egypt (8%), and Lebanon (7%). The average age of those arriving by sea was 26. As with previous years, arrivals are mostly adult males 83%.

It is estimated that Malta ignored calls of distress and failed to rescue around 7,459 people in distress at sea in its SAR zone. Malta was also accused of being involved in 14 pushbacks for a total of 789 people. These numbers are an estimation based on incidents reported by rescue NGOs and news agencies.

In January 2022, Malta was allegedly responsible for the pushbacks of 2 boats of more than 69 people. Malta refused to reply to repeated distress calls from 1 boat with approximately 100 total passengers. The outcome of 2 people from 1 boat in the Maltese SAR in January remains unknown.[6]

The following month, Malta allegedly refused to reply to repeated distress calls from 1 boat with 90 total passengers and instructed a merchant vessel not carry out the rescue.[7]

This was followed in March by allegations that Malta was responsible for the  pushback of 1 boat of 150 people. Malta reportedly refused to reply to repeated distress calls from 1 boat with 26 total passengers.[8]

In May 2022, Malta was allegedly responsible for 2 pushbacks of 2 boats of 195 people. Malta reportedly refused to reply to repeated distress calls from 6 boats with 800 total passengers.[9] It was reported that the AFM refused to communicate information to Frontex Fundamental Rights Officer who filed a “serious incident report” in relation to incidents that occured between 12 and 13 May 2022. The AFM reportedly declared that “Maltese authorities consider that the Fundamental Rights Office or Frontex do not have the right to demand feedback on issues that fall outside the Agency’s mandate” and that “allegations of boats sinking, being left adrift or hindering rescue are false”.[10] NGO Doctors without Borders, who responded to the incidents from 11th of May to 17th of May declared being “appalled by the fact that the Maltese Armed Forces who were primarily responsible for the rescues in the area were informed but remained silent and inactive, neglecting their legal obligation to provide or coordinate assistance.” The Maltese Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri responded to the allegations and denied that Malta was refusing to rescue migrants declaring that “over the years the AFM always carried out its duties in the best way possible and this attack on the AFM is unjust and coming from who expects Malta to become a migration hub in the Mediterranean”.[11]

In June 2022, Malta was allegedly responsible for 4 pushbacks of 4 boats of more than 200 people. Malta reportedly refused to reply to repeated distress calls from 24 boats with more than 500 total passengers. The outcomes of 272 people from 11 boats in the Maltese SAR remain unknown.[12]

In July 2022, Malta was allegedly responsible for 3 pushbacks of 3 boats of approximately 62 people. Malta reportedly refused to reply to repeated distress calls from 7 to 8 boats estimated at 300 passengers. The outcomes of 163 people from up to 8 boats in the Maltese SAR remain unknown. Frontex reportedly facilitated at least 1 pullback by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard from the Maltese SAR zone.[13]

In August 2022, Malta allegedly refused to reply to repeated distress calls from an estimated 22 boats with around 700 total passengers. The Tunisian Coast Guards reportedly intercepted 1 boat with around 20 people onboard in the Maltese SAR zone.[14]  The German vessel Sea-Eye 4, carrying 87 migrants was  denied entry to Malta after waiting several days outside of Malta following a rescue.[15] A group of 40 people was rescued in the Maltese search and rescue area by the Armed Forces of Malta. The group was reportedly flagged by Alarm Phone on 28 July 2022 and the operation came after the people were left out at sea for over 6 days, despite Alarm Phone repeatedly calling on the authorities to intervene.[16]

In September 2022, Malta reportedly refused to reply to repeated distress calls from 5 boats with 633 total passengers. The outcome of 152 people from 2 boats in the Maltese SAR remains unknown.[17] Malta is allegedly responsible for the death of two children as a result of its inaction.[18] Malta was furthermore accused of coordinating one pushback of one boat.[19] A group of 80 migrants who departed by boat from Lebanon and had been left adrift in Maltese waters after their distress calls were ignored by authorities were finally rescued and disembarked in Malta.[20]

In October 2022, Malta was allegedly responsible for 2 pushbacks of 2 boats, with more than 90 people onboard. Maltareportedly refused to reply to repeated distress calls from 11 boats with approximately 1700 total passengers. Malta could be responsible for at least three deaths at sea as a result of its inaction.[21] Sea-Watch accused the Libyan coast guard of threatening to shoot down their monitoring plane that helps the group document the interception of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.[22]

In November 2022, Malta is estimated to have ignored distress calls and refused disembarkation of around 1500 people while the outcome of around 160 people from the Maltese SAR remains unknown.[23] Three NGO rescue ships (Doctors without borders, SOS Mediterranee, and SOS Humanity) carrying nearly 1000 people were reportedly denied disembarkation in Italy or Malta. SOS Humanity’s ship carried more than 100 unaccompanied minors and a 7 month-old, and Doctors without borders’ ship carried an 11 month old and 3 pregnant women.[24] Alarm Phone reported around 500 people in distress in the Maltese SAR zone on 6 November 2022, and declared that the authorities were informed but did not act.  On 7th of November a large rescue mission took place near Sicily, Alarm Phone assumes it was a rescue of this boat.[25] A group of 36 asylum seekers were rescued by the AFM and disembarked in Malta.[26]

In December 2022, Malta is estimated to have ignored distress calls and refused disembarkation of around 1200 people who were in distress in its SAR zone[27]. Notably, between the 7 and the 9th of December, a boat with 90 people on board was rescued by Geo Barents, one woman was pregnant and gave birth on Geo Barents and the AFM insisted that only the woman and her newborn could be medically evacuated, while her other three children (all under 11 years old) should stay on board. The woman and all of her children were eventually evacuated to Italy. Another pregnant woman (9 months pregnant) was evacuated to Malta . Geo Barents was not allowed to disembark the remainder of the passengers (around 249 people) in Malta, and eventually moved North to try to disembark in Italy[28]. In a separate incident which happened between 17th of 19th of December, Sea-Eye accused Malta of urging merchant ships to ignore distress at sea of a group of 45 people[29]. Two groups of 29 and 88 people were reportedly rescued by the AFM.

The main 2022 case regarding criminalisation of rescue at sea was the El Hiblu case going on since 2019.

El Hiblu

In March 2019, a group of 108 migrants escaping Libya were rescued by the merchant vessel ‘El Hiblu 1’ within the Libya SAR zone, but outside its territorial waters. At first, the ship continued towards Libya but changed its course shortly before reaching the Libyan coast and headed instead towards Europe. A Maltese special operation unit boarded the ship and disembarked the migrants in Malta. Upon arrival, the authorities arrested five asylum-seekers and subsequently charged three of them – all teenagers – on suspicion of having hijacked the ship which had rescued them, so as to prevent the captain from returning them to Libya. The three teenagers were immediately detained in the high-security section of prison for adults and charged with very serious offences, some falling under anti-terrorism legislation and punishable with life imprisonment.[30]

The three teenagers were released on bail in November 2019 and remain in Malta, pending their criminal proceedings. The case is still at pre-trial stage, with the three individuals still awaiting the final bill of indictment to be filed by Malta’s Attorney General, they could be charged with terrorism-related offences and face up to 30 years of imprisonment. Throughout 2022 several hearings were held, with the prosecution repeteadly declaring that it had no further evidence to submit.

The case is followed closely by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights which urged Malta to reconsider the severity of the charges, and by Amnesty International which publicly stated that “the severity of the nine charges currently laid against the three youths appears disproportionate to the acts imputed to the defendants and do not reflect the risks they and their fellow travellers would have faced if returned to Libya. The use of counter-terrorism legislation is especially problematic”.[31] This case was taken up by Amnesty International as part of their international campaigning,[32] as well as by several other Maltese and international NGOs.[33]

On 29 September 2022, an open letter was adressed to Malta’s Attorney General Dr. Victoria Buttigieg  by members of the Free the El Hiblu 3 campaign asking the Attorney General to drop the charges. Almost 1000 people signed the letter with more than ten members of the European Parliament including Tineke Strik from the Dutch Green Left (GroenLinks) party and Pietro Bartolo, the Italian doctor from Lampedusa who is now also an MEP; as well as academics from various universities and founders and members of NGOs.[34]


Criminalisation of asylum seekers arriving by air

Concerns have been raised regarding the criminalisation by the authorities of the use of false documentation by asylum-seekers in their attempt to enter Malta[35]. Asylum seekers entering Malta with fake documents are brought before the Magistrates Court (Criminal Judicature) and in most cases condemned to serve a prison sentence. The prosecutions are based on the Maltese Criminal Code in its Article 189[36] and the Immigration Act in its Article 32 (d),[37] which foresee the use of false or forged documents as invariably constituting a criminal offence, with no exception for refugees in law, practice or jurisprudence. The person is generally remanded in custody at the Corradino Correctional Facility for the entire duration of the criminal proceedings, which generally last for about one to two months from the date of institution of the proceedings. The accused are entitled to request the appointment of a legal aid lawyer, or to hire a private lawyer should they have access to one. If found guilty, the Court may sentence the asylum seeker to either a fine of not more than around €12,000 or a maximum imprisonment term of two years, or for both the fine and imprisonment. It is noted that decisions are largely unpredictable, as some individuals have also been sentenced to imprisonment yet with a suspended sentence for a number of years.

In the past years, several cases of applicants for international protection imprisoned and convicted for that reason have been reported, including cases of very young individuals. NGOs expressed their concern over the situation as this criminalisation goes against the provisions of the 1951 Geneva Convention and penalises persons opting not to risk their lives at sea.[38] Unless a lawyer or an NGO assists them, it is unlikely these individuals will be given the chance to lodge their international protection application before the end of their sentence.

It is difficult to assess how many asylum seekers are currently held in prison on the basis of such convictions as these cases rarely mention whether the accused attempted to enter or to leave Malta and whether they expressed their will to apply for asylum and it is likely that the number of asylum seekers entering Malta on fake documents is significantly lower than the number of people attempting to abscond from Malta. In 2020, approximately 250 people were serving a sentence for passport related offenses, a “quarter to a third” of the total prison population.[39] In 2021, 34 migrants were convicted to prison sentences of the above-mentioned articles at law while only 14 migrants were convicted in 2022. This number however does not include minors, as information on this regard is not made public.[40] In 2022, the majority of convicted adults were sentenced to an affective term of imprisonment of six months, provided that in cases where the individuals were convicted of multiple offences a longer term of imprisonment was imposed. NGOs and lawyers reported that several individuals, mostly from countries of origin listed as safe in the IPA Act, are sent to detention in Hal Safi directly after they finish their prison sentence due to their asylum claim not being processed before the end of their term.

On 8 February 2022, the Court of Criminal Appeal in its Inferior Jurisdiction decided to revoke the Court’s initial sentence whereby the 17-year-old appellant was sentenced to one year imprisonment. The court found that since the appellant was a minor, he was considered more vulnerable and susceptible to trafficking and exploitation, and hence invoked a one-year probation period rather than an effective jail sentence.

On 27 October 2022, the Court of Criminal Appeal in its Inferior jurisdiction stated that, in certain cases, although the entry into the territory of a country is deemed to be illegal, the circumstance of the case would deem it to be justified. The court highlighted that when faced with cases falling within the ambit of Article 189 of the Maltese Criminal Code, the court must decide on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Malta is a signatory. The Court provided that according to the most recent jurisprudence, in cases relating to Refugees, the accused were normally sentenced with a six-month jail term, which is the minimum sentence stipulated at law. The court confirmed that although under Maltese law court precedence does not find application, this has over time developed as a form of sentencing policy. The Court of Appeal therefore amended the judgment of the first court and reduced the penalty from a nine-month imprisonment sentence to six months.[41]

On 18 December 2022, an Iranian asylum seeker aged 35 was sentenced to six months in jail after he pleaded guilty to using a false document to enter Malta.[42]

Whilst a ‘not guilty’ verdict is difficult to secure due to the legal situation created by local legislation, in certain cases, the court has decided to implement suspended sentences rather than effective imprisonment convictions. However, the provision of suspended sentences is not the norm, and highly depends on the accused’s circumstances, vulnerabilities and motivations in the past. Furthermore, suspended sentences are nonetheless added to the person’s criminal conduct certificate, potentially affecting future employment possibilities.



On 22 June 2022, Member States agreed to start implementing a voluntary solidarity mechanism by offering relocations, financial contributions and other measures of support to Member States in need however it is unknown of it affected Malta in any way.[43]

In 2022, IOM facilitated the relocation of 14 asylum-seekers as part of a project financed by the EU Commission and Malta.[44]

Legal access to the territory

No incoming relocation scheme, resettlement or humanitarian visa exist in the case of Malta. In practice, 2022 saw Malta hosting over 50,000 third country nationals, being holders of a Single Work Permit.[45] Applications for a residence permit have to be endorsed by the employer and the permit would cease to apply if the applicant was to leave the previously specified employment and failed to find a new employer within 10 days. The Single Work Permit procedure has been critizised for its length and many abuses have been reported to happen, including corruption and exploitation.[46]

No refugees were resettled in Malta in 2022.

Due to the excessive delays of the asylum procedure and the high rejection rate, it is not uncommon for asylum seekers to drop their application and attempt to secure a Single Work Permit by exiting Malta and appying from their country of origin or a third country outside the Schengen space. NGOs reported that the PIO is usually keen on facilitating the process, including for rejected asylum seekers and generally promise the prospective applicant that they will not object to their return to Malta. However, NGOs underlined that the decision to issue a Single Work Permit is ultimately taken by Identity Malta and the PIO is not bound by this promise so there is no guarantee that the process would be successful. Division I of the Immigration Appeals Board agreed that a simple promise by an immigration inspector that the PIO will not object to the individual coming back to Malta is not a sufficient guarantee since the PIO can very well change its mind.[47]

Family members of beneficiaries of refugee status can apply to family reunification (See section on Family reunification).




[1] OHCHR, Report: A call to safeguard migrants in central Mediterranean Sea, 25 May 2021, available at

[2] Commissioner’s report following her visit to Malta from 11 to 16 October 2021, available at

[3] Newsbook, Malta accused of crimes against humanity in The Hague, 18 January 2022, available at:

[4] The Shift News, Sea rescue group claims Frontex complicit in violating human rights in Malta search and rescue zone operation, 28 April 2022,

[5] ECCHR, Interceptions at sea and returns of migrants and refugees to Libya constitute a crime against humanity, 30 November 2022, available at

[6] Sea-Watch, Airborne Monthly Factsheet, January 2022, available at  

[7] The Independent, AFM told merchant vessel not to rescue migrants in distress in Malta’s search and rescue zone – NGO, 14 February 2022, available at

[8] Sea-Watch, Airborne Monthly Factsheet, March 2022, available at

[9] ECRE, Central Med: Malta Continues to Ignore Distress Alerts Leaving People at the Mercy of So-called Libyan Coast Guard, Civilian SAR Operators Save Lives as Crackdown is Ongoing, 25 May 2022, available at

[10] The Shift News, AFM goes on the offensive with Frontex when asked to explain last May’s Sea Eye migrant rescue, 7 September 2022, available at

[11] The Malta News Agency, Migration, Maltese Minister Accused Ngos Of “Attacking” The Armed Forces, 18 May 2022, available at

[12] Sea-Watch, Airborne Monthly Factsheet, June 2022, available at; Sea-Eye, Sea rescuers criticize unequal treatment of refugees, available at;

[13]         Sea-Watch, Airborne Monthly Factsheet, July 2022, available at

[14]  Sea-Watch, Airborne Monthly Factsheet, August 2022, available at

[15] The Independent, Rescue ship carrying 87 migrants refused entry to Malta, 8 August 2022, available at

[16] Newsbook, 40 people rescued in Maltese SAR by AFM, 2 August 2022, available at

[17] Times of Malta, Malta would rescue people at sea if they were European, sea rescue NGO says, 7 September 2022, available at; The Independent, 207 asylum seekers in Malta’s SAR zone have been rescued, 14 September 2022, available at; Alarm Phone on Twitter,

[18] Times of Malta, 60 people drifting in Malta SAR, two children dead, emergency hotline told, 5 September 2022, available at; Loveinmalta, Loujin, young girl who died of thirst after delayed rescue buried in Crete, available at; aditus foundation, Malta Refugee Council demands and official inquiry into the death of a young girl, 19 September 2022, available

[19] Alarm Phone, Malta instructs merchant ship SHIMANAMI QUEEN to take 23 people to Egypt rather than to closer ports in Europe, 19 October 2022, available at

[20] Times of Malta, 80 migrants drifting in distress reach Malta, 2 September 2022, available at

[21] The Independent, Over 1,300 migrants were rescued in Malta and Italy’s SAR zone – NGO, 26 october 2022, available at; Alarm Phone on Twitter,

[22] The Independent, NGO: Libyan Coast Guard threatened to shoot down plane allegedly in Malta’s search and rescue zone, 27 October 2022, available at

[23] See for instance, EU Observer, Ocean Viking mentally preps for another Italian standoff, 15 November 2022, available at; The Independent, Over 100 people in distress in Malta’s SAR zone on Sunday, 14 November 2022,

[24] Al Jazeera, Nearly 1,000 migrants stranded on board NGO ships as storm hits, 5 November 2022, available at

[25] Alarm Phone, 6 November 2022, available at

[26] Newsbook, 36 asylum seekers saved in Maltese SAR, 19 November 2022, available at

[27] The Independent, Around 450 people in distress in Malta’s SAR zone, 5 December 2022, available at; Newsbook, Over 200 people in distress in Malta’s SAR, 19 december 2022,

[28] MSF, Newborn Ali and his family are safe, but the future of the other 249 survivors remains uncertain, 9 December 2022, available at

[29] Malta Today, Migrant rescue NGO says Malta urged merchant ships to ignore distress at sea, 19 December 2022, available at

[30] Pending a formal indictment, the three teenagers have been charged with: – Act of terrorism, involving the seizure of a ship (Art.328A(1)(b), (2)(e), Criminal Code). – Act of terrorism, involving the extensive destruction of private property (Art.328A(1)(b), (2)(d), (k) Criminal Code). – “terrorist activities”, involving the unlawful seizure or the control of a ship by force or threat (Art.328A(4)(i) Criminal Code). – Illegal arrest, detention or confinement of persons and threats (Artt.86 and 87(2) Criminal Code). – Illegal arrest, detention or confinement of persons for the purpose of forcing another person to do or omit an act which if voluntary done, would be a crime (Art. 87(1)(f) Criminal Code). – Unlawful removal of persons to a foreign country (Art.90 Criminal Code). – Private violence against persons (Art. 251(1) and (2) Criminal Code). – Private violence against property (Art.251(3) Criminal Code). – Causing others to fear that violence will be used against them or their property (Art.251B Criminal Code).

[31] Amnesty International, Malta: The El Hiblu 1 Case: Three Teenagers in the Dock for Daring to Oppose Their Return to Suffering in Libya, 23 October 2019, available at:; UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Press briefing note on Malta, 7 May 2019, available at:

[32] Amnesty International, ‘Demand justice for the El Hiblu 3’, available at:

[33] For more information see ‘The El Hiblu 3!’ at:

[34] InforMigrants, Campaign to free the El Hiblu 3 urges Malta’s Attorney General to ‘drop charges’, 30 September 2022, available at and

[35] Times of Malta, Refugees should not be prosecuted for using false documents, say NGOS, 1 July 2016, available at; Maltatoday, Man fled Iran on fake passport to escape death sentence for renouncing Islam, court told, 26 March 2019, available at; Maltatoday, Man fled Iran on fake passport to escape death sentence for renouncing Islam, court told, 26 March 2019, available at

[36]Whosoever shall commit any  other  kind  of  forgery, or shall knowingly make use of any other forged document, not provided for in the preceding articles of this Title, shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months”.

[37]  “Any person who […] forges any document or true copy of a document or an entry made in pursuance of this Act”.

[38] Aditus foundation, Blogpost: Prosecution and imprisonment of refugees entering Malta using false documents, 29 July 2021, available at:

[39] Maltatoday, Court worried over high number of false passport cases, 7 December 2020,

[40] Information available on Malta’s ‘ecourt’ online system at:

[41] IL-PULIZIJA vs NAYAN RAHMAN HANIF ET, Court of Criminal Appeal (Inferior), 27/10/2022, ref no. 275/2022/1

[42] TVMNews, Man sentenced to six months jail for coming to Malta on a fake passport, 19 December 2022, available at

[43] EC, Migration and Asylum: Commission welcomes today’s progress in the Council on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, 22 June 2022, available at

[44] Information provided by IOM on 11 February 2023.

[45] Ministry for Finance and Employment, Reply to Parliamentary Question No. 4960, 30 December 2022, available at:

[46] See for instance, Times of Malta, Workers promised application ‘fast-track’ if they pay thousands, 24 October 2022, available at and Times of Malta, Work permit delays can last months. This businessman has had enough, 21 November 2022, available at

[47] Immigration Appeals Board, Div. I, Bouchaib Hamou vs. The Principal Immigration Officer, IAB/RO/15/22, 

Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection
  • ANNEX I – Transposition of the CEAS in national legislation