Malta Cabinet meet to discuss Italy closure of ports to NGO migrant rescue

NGO claims AFM at first did not pick up the phone and, when they did, said nothing.

File Photo
File Photo

Ministers met at Castille late yesterday night to discuss Malta's reaction after Italy closed its harbours to NGO migrant rescue ships because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Malta government is expected to issue a statement outlining Malta’s position soon. 

NGO Alarm Phone has accused the AFM of being uncooperative as it seeks to rescue some 70 asylum seekers trapped on a flimsy boat in Malta’s Search and Rescue area. 

The asylum seekers had called the NGO’s emergency hotline yesterday to report that their vessel was in distress but further contact was hampered by technical problems. 

Alarm Phone had contacted the Maltese authorities on Wednesday at 5:30am it said. The AFM is denying receiving any calls about the boat, despite air assets having been flying in the area at night, the NGO said. 

A spokesperson for the NGO is reported as saying that the AFM at first did not pick up the phone and later, when the call was answered, said nothing. 

On Tuesday the Italian and Maltese governments told the German foreign ministry they will not agree to disembarkation of migrants rescued by the German migrant rescue charity Sea-Eye, due to the developing situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The NGOs Sea-Watch, Doctors Without Borders, Open Arms and Mediterranea have expressed their concern over the Italian government’s decision to use the COVID-19 pandemic to close its ports to people rescued at sea.

“This measure appears to target, once again, civil society’s search and rescue vessels. With the sole purpose of stopping search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean – and without providing alternatives to save the lives of those fleeing Libya – Italy has, by decree, deprived its harbours of the connotation of ‘place of safety’, which is attributed to all European ports. In doing so, Italy is equating itself with countries at war or where fundamental human rights are not granted. At the same time, an arbitrary selection of vessels is established which are denied access to Italian territory,” the NGOs said.

“At a time when Italy is calling for solidarity in its fight against COVID-19 and receiving support from its international partners as well as from NGOs, the government should show the same kind of solidarity to vulnerable people risking their lives at sea because they have no alternative.”

None of the organisations, except for Sea-Eye, are currently at sea with their vessels since, in order to comply with COVID-19 prevention and response measures.

Sea-Eye’s ‘Alan Kurdi’ is now sailing with 150 shipwreck survivors on board, including a pregnant woman.

“The current health emergency does not absolve us from the obligation to find a dignified solution for them as soon as possible,” the NGOs said. “In such difficult times, it is all the more necessary for European countries to uphold their joint responsibilities and comply with their lifesaving obligations.”