Migrant tragedy: Human trafficker steering boat was ‘drunk’

Smuggler Mohammed Ali Malek was drunk and had smoked cannabis while steering the vessel with over 800 people on board, Italian authorities told • Prime Minister Joseph Muscat asks Europe to stand united against human smugglers

Smuggler Mohammed Ali Malek (right) sitting in a white boiler suit next to a migrant as 24 bodies are transferred onto hearses in Malta. (Photo: Ray Attard)
Smuggler Mohammed Ali Malek (right) sitting in a white boiler suit next to a migrant as 24 bodies are transferred onto hearses in Malta. (Photo: Ray Attard)

Tunisian Mohammed Ali Malek, one of two smugglers arrested by Italian authorities in connection with the biggest migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean, was “drunk” while steering the rickety boat carrying over 800 people.

The second man arrested has been identified as Syrian Mahmud Bikhit, 25.

Italian authorities investigating the tragedy were also told that Malek had been smoking cannabis. When Malek, 27, saw the Portuguese merchant vessel King Jacob approaching he steered closer to the vessel in an attempt to hide the ship. He however steered too close, colliding with the merchant vessel.

Meanwhile, the migrants had shifted on the side of the boat facing the merchant vessel and, following the collision, the rickety boat overturned and sank, taking with it the lives of men, women and children that were trapped below deck.

The tragedy is believed to have occurred at around 7pm on 18 April. Other merchant vessels were diverted to the area by the Italian and Maltese rescue coordination centres to assist the migrants. The Italian coastguard vessel Bruno Gregoretti reached the site at around 2am and managed to save two survivors, captain Gianluigi Bove said.

A diary, an identification document and a life jacket were the only objects recovered from the seas off the Libyan coast.

28 people were saved in all, among them the two human traffickers. 24 bodies were recovered and brought to Malta. In the presence of European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, the 24 individuals will be laid to rest in an interfaith ceremony.

The “deadliest incident in the Mediterranean”, as described by the UNHCR, has led to France admitting that it hadn’t risen to the occasion while calling for an increased surveillance of the Mediterranean. Other countries, UK included, supported calls for member states to come together and discuss the tragedy in a bid to find short-term solutions.

Emergency EU summit on Mediterranean crisis

Pushed by Italy and Malta, the EU leaders will meet tomorrow meet in Brussels to present options “for immediate action”, as said by European Council President Donald Tusk.

Italy and Malta will be calling on the EU to give its “political blessing” to an operation in Libya targeting smugglers. According to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, there were member states with the capacity and the political willingness to carry out the operation, but the EU needed to give its official go-ahead.

On Italian current affairs programme Porta a Porta, Muscat said hundreds of lives were lost at sea, but the world had forgotten about them.

It is estimated that more than 500 migrants died attempting the crossing in the first three months of 2015 – 10 times the number over the same period in 2014.

“I hope for common sense to prevail and I hope for [member states] to realise that this is both a security issue and a humanitarian crisis. They have to see that Italy is shouldering the EU’s burden on its own and they must join forces with us and do something concrete. We must stand united,” Muscat said.

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