Two human rights groups instrumental in getting the European Court of Human Rights to order Malta to halt the forcible deportation of two Muslim Chinese asylum-seekers of Uyghur ethnicity are now strategizing with lawyers about their next move.
“We together with the lawyers will evaluate the rest of the procedures to be followed, which may be a full application to the European Court—maybe. There might be other avenues, but we are discussing that,” said Laura Harth, campaign director at the Spanish humanitarian group Safeguard Defenders, which learned about the two Uyghurs 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 back in China based on their ethnicity and religion.
After authorities denied their application in 2017, they went into hiding in the country and were issued a return decision and removal order on Aug. 1, 2022.
The couple raised a claim based on the non-refoulement principle, which states that no one should be returned to a country where they would face persecution, violence or death.
But the authorities rejected it on Jan. 12.
The next day, the two rights groups filed an application with the court under Rule 39 for urgent interim measures against Malta, a European Union member state.
The move came a day after the Maltese Immigration Appeals Board’s final rejection of the couple’s appeal for humanitarian protection, Aditus Foundation said in a statement. Immigration authorities held the pair at Safi Barracks, an immigration detention center, pending their imminent deportation to China.
The Strasbourg, France-based Court of Human Rights issued the order on Jan. 16 after Maltese authorities decided to send the pair back to China despite evidence of atrocities committed against Uyghurs in the far-western Xinjiang region and the transnational persecution of the couple through reprisals against their family members in China.
Under Rule 39, the court can indicate interim measures to any state party to the European Convention on Human Rights only in cases where there is an imminent risk of irreparable damage, such as requests by applicants to suspend an extradition.
Malta’s Ministry for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade did not respond to questions about the situation sent by RFA on Thursday. A ministry official who answered the phone on Friday said officials would respond to the inquiry, but no comments had been received as of publication time.
Procedures 'far from perfect'
The two human rights groups and lawyers representing the couple provided Malta’s immigration board with ample evidence of the atrocities Uyghurs face in China, including statements by foreign governments, parliaments and the United Nations, Harth said. They also cited a damning report by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that said China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
But the Maltese board said the “appellants failed to produce further evidence to substantiate the principle of non-refoulement,” Safeguard Defenders said in a statement.
In the coming days, the groups will discuss and evaluate with attorneys the legal procedures to be followed, Harth said.
But she indicated that the process may not go smoothly.
“The Maltese authorities have obviously said that they respect the order from the European Court, but at the same time, we’ve also seen in Maltese media that the Maltese authorities said that they are not likely to overturn their decision,” she told RFA.
But even though 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 judgment from the European Court of Human Rights, involving a Bangladeshi journalist, which indicated problems in the way Malta reviews asylum requests.
“In the light of these problems, and of international awareness on the situation of Uyghurs in China, it is untenable for Malta to insist that all has been done to protect our clients,” he said.
In the meantime, Maltese authorities released the Uyghur couple on Wednesday, Harth said.
“Their status remains what it was,” she said. “They have not obtained asylum at this point. They are protested by interim measures from the European Court.”
Translated by RFA Uyghur. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Malcolm Foster.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Jilil Kashgary for RFA Uyghur.