Malta ignores activists’ distress calls for 270 refugees stranded in its SAR zone

Two passing merchant ships fail to help the castaways and abandon them to face the night alone

THE LIVES of about 270 refugees adrift in waters near Malta are at serious risk, activists have warned, as the island nation’s coastguard repeatedly ignores their calls and passing merchant vessels seemingly refuse to help.

Since the morning activists operating Alarm Phone‘s emergency hotlines for refugees at sea have been in contact with three separate boats, carrying about 60, 100, and 110 people each.

Alarm Phone was first contacted by the boat carrying about 100 people in international waters. Their engine had failed and water was entering the boat.

One of the refugee boats pictured from the Moonbird today (Pic: Fabian Melber)

At 11.15am (BST) Alarm Phone announced on social media that the boat had now reached Malta’s search-and-rescue (SAR) zone, meaning it is legally responsible to coordinate a rescue.

“We forwarded [the boat’s GPS position] to [Armed Forced Malta], but as expected, the so-called Maltese coastguard refuses to confirm that they [will] take responsibility and hangs up on us when we call,” the network posted on social media.

Alarm Phone’s last contact with the 100 people at the time of writing was at 1.35pm (BST). It warned that the weather and waves were worsening and that a nearby merchant vessel, the Maridive, refused to help the stranded.

The engine on the boat carrying 60 people has also stopped. It entered Malta’s SAR zone this morning.

A passenger on board the boat carrying about 110 people told Alarm Phone that they had been at sea for a day and a half already. Another merchant vessel, the Nordic Star, was also nearby.

The GPS position for the boat with 110 people is inside Malta’s SAR zone

Ruben Neugebauer, a spokesman for German refugee rescue organisation Sea Watch told The Civil Fleet this afternoon that its reconnaissance aircraft, Moonbird, had spotted the refugee boats and merchant ships.

“The Maridive refused to rescue right from the beginning,” Mr Neugebauer said.

“The Nordic Star’s captain was willing to help at first. It changed course towards the boat in distress. But it seems to have changed course again away from the boat.

“We assume that instead of coordinating a rescue in their SAR region, the Maltese authorities might have intervened and ordered the Nordic Star’s captain not to act according to international law.

“We can’t proove that at the moment because we haven’t been able to speak with the captain. The Moonbird had to leave the scene to refuel.

“We think what we are facing right now is another Easter Weekend of non-assistance in which the Maltese authorities are putting lives at risk in order to force them back to Libya instead of having them arrive on European shores.

Another one of the boats pictured from the Moonbird today (Pic: Fabian Melber)

“But what is absolutely clear is that all three cases are within Malta’s SAR region and therefore under Maltese coordination. They must coordinate a rescue according to international law, which also means taking into account the Geneva Refugee Convention.

“But they’re not doing that.

“We witnessed a pushback from the Maltese SAR region last week. Last Sunday there was another case in which we overheard radio communications from a Maltese aircraft coordinating an interception with the so-called Libyan Coastguard patrol boat Fezzan.

“We’re almost 100 percent sure the Fezzan took the people back to Libya.”

An Alarm Phone spokesperson told The Civil Fleet that the situation for the refugees still stuck at sea remains dire.

“There have been no state actors on the scene at all today,” they said. “And there have been no rescues to malta so far this year.”

“Of course, merchant vessels fear a standoff with Malta or Italy if they rescue people at sea, but they shouldn’t as we can assist them. So they prefer to not get involved, obviously.

“Night is coming in a few hours and we will expect the three boats will be left unattended, which is horrible.”


For updates on the situation be sure to follow Sea Watch and Alarm Phone on Twitter.

Top image shows the Maridive merchant vessel passing close to a refugee boat inside Malta’s SAR zone today (Pic: Fabian Melber)

Published by Ben Cowles

Is a journalist and podcaster

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