Italians take in migrants at sea, NGOs say Malta refusing to coordinate rescues

Malta armed forces remain unresponsive to calls from Alarmphone to coordinate rescue of big boat of 500 people out at sea

A rescue aboard the Sea Eye vessel from December 2021. Photo: Sea-Eye/Fiona Alihosi
A rescue aboard the Sea Eye vessel from December 2021. Photo: Sea-Eye/Fiona Alihosi

A boatload of 450 migrants at sea who were refused a rescue coordination by Malta, have been landed in Italy, in the port of Pozzala.

The Sicilian port-town’s mayor, Roberto Ammatuna, announced the arrival, saying the town’s “system of reception is ready”.

Ammatuna said it was inevitable that the good weather brought by summer would prompt new arrivals over the course of the season. “It is now without question that a European military force in the Mediterranean must be ever present – the rescue of thousands of human lives cannot be the sole prerogative for some NGOs only.”

The large boat of 450 migrants and asylum seekers was escorted inwards from 30 miles out of Portopalo by Italian finance police. Another 57 asylum seekers were landed in Lampedusa, while another 145 are expected in August, after being rescued by the Sea Watch 4 rescue ship.

Malta was accused of having refused to intervene in a rescue of two boats with over 500 lives at stake in the Mediterranean Sea.

According to alerts from the migrant rescue charity Alarmphone, Malta’s armed forces remained unresponsive. The island has already failed to coordinate or carry out rescues after two cases earlier this week, where people in Malta’s search and rescue were only rescued due to the intervention of merchant vessels and NGO boats.

According to Alarmphone, in the case of a boat of 26 people, the AFM was actively encouraging merchant vessels not to respond to the distress signals of the people on board. Another alert has been sent out for the rescue of a big boa that left Tobruk, in Libya, reportedly encountering engine problems with people aboard who are sick and without food and water.

“We alerted authorities and demand an immediate rescue operation!” Alarmphone said.

Earlier this week, migrant rescue charity Sea-Eye accused the Maltese rescue coordination centre of refusing to coordinate rescue efforts for a distress call from migrants at sea inside the Maltese search and rescue zone.

During the night of Wednesday, 11 May and Thursday 12 May, a distress call reached the Sea-Eye 4 vessel via the organization AlarmPhone, from 24 people in distress in a small wooden boat in the Maltese search and rescue zone.

They were eventually accepted into the port of Pozzallo, Sicily.

Refusal of rescue

Sea-Eye said that on 12 May, oil tanker Ross Sea approached the wooden boat. During the radio communication between Sea-Eye 4 and Ross Sea, the tanker’s captain stated that he tried to reach the rescue coordination centre in Malta, but received no response for a while. “RCC Malta told me to keep on monitoring. They asked me to just stay around and keep on monitoring from distance,” he told Sea-Eye 4.

“We regularly receive no response from the rescue centre in Malta during maritime emergencies as well. Why didn’t Malta directly ask Ross Sea to rescue the people? Malta did not send any help for three days! By now, Malta stops at nothing to prevent people seeking protection from being able to reach Malta,” said Gorden Isler, Chairman of Sea-Eye.

“If Malta had coordinated the rescue and had it carried out by the Ross Sea, whose next port of destination would have been the Maltese capital Valletta, Malta would have had to take in the people seeking protection.”

Another rescue charity, the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), rescued 470 on the morning of 9 May and over the following 72 hours, from seven boats in distress in the Libyan and Maltese search and rescue zones. They are now on the rescue ship Geo Barents, operating in the central Mediterranean sea.

Yet none of the boats were identified by the relevant maritime rescue coordination centres, and MSF was assisted by Alarm Phone, the Mediterranean monitoring organisation, and Pilotes Volontaires, a French-based non-profit organisation providing aerial observation.

“We were again appalled by the inaction of the Maltese and Italian authorities while almost 100 lives were hanging in the balance. The Maltese armed forces, who are primary responsible for rescues in the Maltese search and rescue zone, were informed at the same time as us, but they remained silent and inactive, neglecting their legal obligation to provide or coordinate assistance. They also ignored our request for a port of safety,” said Juan Matias Gil, MSF head of mission for SAR operations.