Migrant rescue NGO says Malta is refusing to allow vessel to refuel

SOS Mediterranee has said Malta has refused to allow its migrant rescue vessel Ocean Viking to refuel in the island’s waters 

Maltese authorities have refused to allow the European migrant rescue vessel Ocean Viking to refuel in the island’s waters, a SOS Mediterranee spokeswoman said on Wednesday. 

The spokeswoman said that a time-slot had been set for refuelling the vessel in Maltese territorial waters on Wednesday and confirmed by a mediator. But the Maltese maritime authorities then radioed in that they had received no authorization. 

SOS Mediterranee said a different solution was being sought, without going into details.  

Launched by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Ocean Viking set off from the French port of Marseille on Sunday and was set to arrive off the coast of Libya by the end of the week. 

With capacity for around 200 people, it is currently the biggest rescue vessel in the Mediterranean. It also has four high-speed rescue boats as well as a medical clinic onboard. 

The charities’ previous vessel, the Aquarius, in December was forced to cease operations after two years due to pressure from Italy, where the right-wing government has taken a hard line on migrants arriving by boat. 

The Mediterranean is among the most dangerous routes for people trying to flee Africa and the Middle East for Europe. At least 426 people have died since the beginning of the year after setting off from Libya, according to SOS Mediterranee. 

Italy, which has taken an increasingly hardline stance against accepting undocumented migrants under a populist government, has denounced the role of trafficking gangs that pile migrants into rickety boats and send them into the Mediterranean. 

Its European partners have also pointed the finger at these gangs, as have NGOs. 

But while Rome says saving migrants only encourages people smugglers, NGOs counter that departures continue even without rescue boats and drownings increase. 

“Our presence at sea is to save lives. We hope that the countries will understand and join with us as there is no other solution in the central Mediterranean,” Frederic Penard, head of operations at SOS Mediterranee, said in July. 

But EU countries still seek to dissuade them. Italy’s Matteo Salvini has signed in a law to penalise rescuers of migrants crossing into Italy ‘illegally’ by €1 million.