Sea Watch migrant rescue plane blocked from flying by Maltese authorities

Migrant rescue charity Sea Watch says the Maltese authorities said the plane had no permit for search and rescue operations, but no legal reasons for the no-fly were communicated

The Moonbird aircraft has already been involved in the rescue of 20,000 people
The Moonbird aircraft has already been involved in the rescue of 20,000 people

The sea rescue charity Sea Watch has said it has been blocked by the Maltese authorities from using its civil search aircraft Moonbird.

The aircraft is operated by Sea-Watch and the Swiss Humanitarian Pilots Initiative (HPI) and supported by the Evangelical Church of Germany.

Sea Watch said that with rescue ships impounded in Maltese ports, no search flights in the search and rescue area north of the Libyan coast were possible any more.

The aircraft has already been involved in the rescue of 20,000 people.

Moonbird commander Ruben Neugebauer said the Maltese authorities had told Sea Watch there was no permit for any type of search and rescue operations, earlier this week. “Reasons or a legal basis for the no-fly were not communicated,” he said.

The Moonbird operated over a year almost daily from Malta, in cooperation with the Maltese authorities and the Italian Coast Guard, sometimes even under their explicit command, Sea Watch – a member of the International Maritime Rescue Federation – said.

The Cirrus SR22 single-engine aircraft is equipped with special safety systems and is suited for use over the open sea.

“The political leaders should be clear what this flight ban means: the people on the boats are not saved, but drown unseen,” said pilot and HPI founder Fabio Zgraggen. “Around 1,000 people would have died last year had we not found them at the last second and informed the authorities. Since civilian rescuers are no longer allowed to help, we are witnessing a massive increase in casualties.”

Zgraggen recalled that more than three shipwrecks have occurred since Malta prevented civilian escorts from leaving, leaving more than 500 dead since the Italian minister Matteo Salvini closed the ports of Italy. All in all, more than 1,400 people died this year.

Ruben Neugebauer condemned the rationale behind the decision of the Maltese government: “Obviously, there should be no independent eyewitnesses documenting human rights violations… The European public should not know how barbarous this isolationist policy is… There should be no evidence of how people are drowning or how the so-called Libyan Coast Guard is acting.

Refugees swim away from the Libyan coast guard, according to a photo posted by Sea Watch, on the 21 April. Photo: Tim Lüddemann/Sea-Watch.org
Refugees swim away from the Libyan coast guard, according to a photo posted by Sea Watch, on the 21 April. Photo: Tim Lüddemann/Sea-Watch.org

“The deaths of the people are accepted because they are intended as a effect on other refugees. But dying will continue as long as European governments do not address the root causes of migration and set up legal and secure access routes.”

The air reconnaissance project was largely made possible by the Evangelical Church in Germany which also supported the purchase of the aircraft. Pastor Manfred Rekowski, chairman of the Chamber of Migration and Integration of the EKD, said the actions of the Maltese authorities were scandalous.

“The least we can do now is offering a precise look-out. After all, fewer people will not die just because there are no more pictures and reports… Such a political approach to human rights organizations, arbitrary prohibitions or confiscations happens only in other parts of the world. In the middle of Europe, in the legal area of ​​the European Union, this is a scandal.”

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