Minister brushes off allegations that Malta ignored migrant boat distress call

Home Affairs Minister denies allegations of Malta delegating migrant rescue to Libyan coastguard, insists no official request was made

Home Affairs minister Michael Farrugia
Home Affairs minister Michael Farrugia

Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia has played down allegations that Malta had delegated a migrant rescue operation to the Libyan coastguard after it was alerted of a boat in distress.

On Thursday, the aid organisation AlarmPhone accused Malta’s rescue coordination centre of failing to assist a boat in distress despite being informed of the situation by the organisation, in turn violating international search and rescue regulation.

The NGO claimed that on 18 October, AlarmPhone was contacted by a distressed boat that had fled from Libya, carrying around 50 migrants, and was in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone.

Seven hours after re-contacting Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre at 9:30 pm in order to transfer updated GPS positions, Malta had told the NGO that the boat had been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard within the Maltese SAR zone.

“While Malta was monitoring the boat in distress with air assets, the Armed Forces of Malta were not sent to rescue the boat in distress. Instead, the Maltese authorities waited for the so-called Libyan coastguards to enter the Maltese SAR zone, to intercept the group of migrants in distress, and to return them to the place they had escaped from – Libya,” the NGO said.

Asked to react to the allegations, Farrugia said that he had been informed that Malta’s RCC had not been officially informed, therefore it did not have the official responsibility on that boat. “The centre has shouldered responsibility on other boats, but this boat was not part of its official remit,” Farrugia said.

The NGO accused Malta of being in violation of the non-refoulement principle, an international law that prevents the return of people fleeing persecution to the place they have escaped from.

The NGO has said that the closest port to the rescue location would have been Lampedusa, which was 41 nautical miles away, but the Libyan coastguard took them back to Tripoli to the Triq al Sikka detention centre, infamous for its inhumane conditions and violations of human rights.

“RCC Malta were fully aware of the distress situation but failed to carry out a SAR operation. Malta did so in order to allow Libya to intervene many hours later,” the NGO said.

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