As a boat faces worsening weather conditions and begins to fill with water, the appeals for rescue made by Italian NGO Emergency have been disregarded by the Maltese authorities.
A humanitarian organization has reported that approximately 500 refugees and migrants are currently onboard a distressed boat in the Mediterranean Sea. These individuals embarked from Libya with the intention of reaching Europe. Italian NGO Emergency has stated that the vessel, carrying 45 women and 56 children, including a newborn baby born during the journey, is taking on water.
Emergency’s rescue vessel, Life Support, is en route to the location in Maltese waters but requires approximately 10 more hours to reach the distressed boat. The nationalities of the individuals onboard are currently unknown.
Albert Mayordomo, the head of the Life Support mission, expressed urgency, stating that saving as many lives as possible is a race against time. Mayordomo criticized the lack of coordination from the authorities, considering it a serious violation of maritime law.
Emergency has been in contact with the Maltese authorities following the proper maritime procedures, but as of Tuesday, when Alarm Phone flagged the distress call, no response has been received. Emergency also sought assistance from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, which redirected the case to the Maltese authorities.
Al Jazeera’s requests for comment from the Maltese coastguard went unanswered, and the Italian authorities declined to provide a statement.
Captain Paolo Fusarini of the Life Support expressed concern about the challenging nighttime rescue operation due to unfavorable weather conditions, including 1.5-meter waves. Fusarini admitted that he is not very hopeful about reaching the location in time and fears that many lives may be lost before their arrival.
Alarm Phone reported that the local authorities, whether Maltese or Italian, were informed about the presence of the boat. Subsequently, German NGO Sea-Watch deployed its light observation aircraft, Sea Bird, to locate the vessel. However, on Wednesday, Alarm Phone announced the loss of contact with the distressed boat, raising concerns about the fate of the 500 individuals onboard.
Sea-Watch criticized the Maltese sea rescue coordination center for ignoring their calls and demanded immediate clarification.
This year, over 45,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean, marking the highest number since 2017. Unfortunately, the International Organization for Migration estimates that approximately 1,090 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since January.
Italy’s response is delayed, while Malta remains indifferent
A European network of 105 NGOs across 39 European countries, known as the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, has summarized the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean. They point out that Italy is causing delays, Malta is ignoring the crisis, and both Tunisia and Libya are engaging in repressive tactics.
According to the network, Italian authorities continue to assign distant ports for NGO rescue vessels to disembark survivors. Malta, on the other hand, failed to rescue over 7,000 distressed individuals in its search and rescue zone in 2022, and reports of non-responsive tactics persist.
On January 2, the Italian government passed legislation mandating rescue ship captains to request an immediate port after a rescue, rather than staying at sea to assist with multiple distress calls. This policy has led to increased costs and decreased operational efficiency, as per the NGOs.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has denied claims that government policies discouraging migration played a role in a fatal shipwreck off the country’s southern coast in March, where at least 72 people lost their lives. However, nearly two weeks after the incident, Italy’s coastguard conducted a large-scale rescue operation, saving over 1,000 stranded individuals on three distressed boats.
The Maltese government has also faced criticism. A report published in March by the Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, a network of non-governmental actors involved in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, revealed that Maltese authorities frequently abandoned those in need of rescue at sea. The report stated that in 2022, more than 20,000 distressed individuals were ignored, 413 boats requesting assistance were not aided, and only three boats were rescued by Malta’s armed forces.
The report further highlighted that non-assistance has become a regular part of lethal measures aimed at reducing arrivals in Malta. In 2023, Maltese authorities have only rescued 92 people thus far, reinforcing concerns about their response to the ongoing crisis.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA