Two human rights groups that helped lead the European Court of Human Rights to order Malta to halt the forcible deportation of two Chinese Muslim asylum seekers of Uyghur origin are now discussing their next move with lawyers.
“We will evaluate with the lawyers the rest of the procedures to follow, which could be a full request to the European Court, perhaps. There may be other avenues, but we are discussing them,” said Laura Harth, campaign manager at the Spanish humanitarian group Safeguard Defenders, who learned about the two Uighurs in August 2022. She did not elaborate on the possible options.
Safeguard Defenders and the Maltese NGO Aditus Foundation have taken up the case of the married couple who arrived in Malta in 2016 and applied for international protection because of the danger of persecution they faced in China based on their ethnicity and religion.
After authorities rejected their application in 2017, they went into hiding in the country and received a return decision and deportation order on August 1, 2022.
The couple filed a claim based on the non-refoulement principle, which states that no one should be returned to a country that results in persecution, violence or death.
But the authorities rejected it on January 12.
The next day, the two rights groups filed a request to the court under Rule 39 for urgent interim measures against Malta, a member state of the European Union.
The move came a day after the final rejection by the Maltese Immigration Appeals Board of the couple’s request for humanitarian protection, Aditus Foundation said in a statement. Immigration authorities detained the couple in the Safi Barracks, an immigrant detention center, pending their impending deportation to China.
The Strasbourg, France-based Court of Human Rights issued the order on January 16 after Maltese authorities decided to return the couple to China, despite evidence of atrocities committed against Uyghurs in the far western region of Xinjiang and the transnational persecution of the couple through reprisals against their relatives in China.
Under Rule 39, the court can only grant provisional measures to a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights in cases where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm, such as petitioners’ requests for a stay an extradition.
The Maltese Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and Trade did not respond to questions sent by the RFA about the situation on Thursday. A ministry official who answered the phone on Friday said officials would respond to the investigation, but no comments had been received at the time of publication.
Procedures ‘far from perfect’
The two human rights groups and lawyers representing the couple have provided Malta’s immigration service with ample evidence of the atrocities faced by Uyghurs in China, including statements from foreign governments, parliaments and the United Nations, Harth said. They also cited a damning report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
But the Maltese board said the “plaintiffs have provided no further evidence to substantiate the principle of non-refoulement,” Safeguard Defenders said in a statement..
In the coming days, the groups of attorneys will discuss and evaluate legal procedures to follow, Harth said.
But she indicated that the process may not go smoothly.
“The Maltese authorities have clearly said that they respect the European Court’s order, but at the same time we have also seen in the Maltese media that the Maltese authorities said they are unlikely to reverse their decision,” she told RFA. .
But while Malta’s asylum procedures rejected the Uyghur couple’s request, the procedures are far from perfect, said Neil Falzon, director of Aditus.
He cited a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, involving a Bangladeshi journalist, which pointed to problems in Malta’s way of assessing asylum applications.
“In light of these issues and the international awareness of the plight of Uyghurs in China, it is untenable for Malta to maintain that every effort has been made to protect our customers,” he said.
Meanwhile, Maltese authorities released the Uyghur couple on Wednesday, Harth said.
“Their status remains what it was,” she said. “They have not received asylum at the moment. They are protested by interim measures of the European Court.”
Translated by RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Malcolm Foster.