Malta disputes claim migrant boat on which people died was in its SAR for days

Army coordinated rescue when boat entered Malta SAR but EU knew vessel was in Libyan area • 250 doctors tell PM: ‘Save lives at sea’

Malta is disputing claims that a migrant boat on which people died had been in its search and rescue area for days, insisting the dinghy was in Libya’s area of competence.

The Maltese government said on Wednesday evening that the EU was informed of the boat that was in Libya’s SAR and although aircraft flew over the area no vessels were sent to pick up the migrants.

“The boat in question had already been in distress for a number of days while in Libya’s Search and Rescue Area, not in Malta’s SAR. The European Union was aware of the boat as it was located in Libya’s Search and Rescue Area. The EU flew its aircraft over the area but did not send any vessels to pick up the migrants,” the government statement read.

The statement contradicts the assertion made over the past days by migrant support NGO Alarm Phone that the boat, which was one of four that had left Libya last week, was in Malta’s SAR.

The government insisted yesterday that the AFM coordinated the rescue when the boat entered Malta’s SAR by instructing a commercial vessel to pick up the migrants, who were later transferred to a Libyan fishing vessel and taken back to Tripoli.

“Malta immediately followed the established coordination procedures, communicating the necessary information through NAVTEX, an automated system used to transmit navigational alerts. The AFM also made a number of flights to pinpoint where this boat was located, as soon as it was reported to be in Malta’s SAR. During one of these flights, the boat’s exact location was established and the AFM called nearby vessels to assist,” the statement said.

“During this time, the Armed Forces of Malta was also coordinating four other similar cases on its own,” it said.

On Wednesday evening the NGO Alarm Phone was the first to announce that five migrants had been found dead with seven missing, on a boat left stranded in Maltese waters which was later picked up by a commercial vessel.

Taking to social media the NGO said Malta was “responsible for the deaths and for returning the survivors to war, rape and torture.”

The International Organization for Migration confirmed the deaths and reiterated its appeal for migrants not to be returned to Libya.

Malta and Italy have closed their ports to migrants as they deal with the COVID-19 emergency. Two rescue NGO ships, the Aita Mari and Alan Kurdi, are currently stranded outside Lampedusa and Sicily with migrants on board, waiting for instructions where to disembark the people.

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Over 250 healthcare professionals and students in healthcare have signed an open later calling for Prime Minister Robert Abela to reconsider his stance on assisting lives in danger at sea.

While the letter acknowledges the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, it said allowing people to die in the name of public health was contradictory.

In the letter, an initiative supported by the Daphne Foundation established in the memory of the late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Prof. Albert Fenech said life had to be put above politics, and that the country was “perfectly capable” of testing and placing migrants in isolation.

The letter tells the prime minister that Malta cannot abandon its moral and ethical responsibilities and calls on the state to likewise not abandon its positive obligation to protect lives. It also acknowledges that rescue and disembarkation were not without its risks, and called for steps to be taken to mitigate the risks rather than violate the human rights of people in distress at sea. “If we allow the government to pay for public health with people’s lives, we will have failed in our obligations as citizens, as healthcare workers, and as a nation.”

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