Malta’s rescue policy criticized after migrant drowns

Long-running unhappiness among fellow EU Mediterranean countries at Malta’s lack of enthusiasm when it comes to dealing with seaborne migrants has boiled over after a male passenger on a migrant boat drowned.

A passenger on a rubber boat carrying 14 migrants from the Middle East and Africa that had run out of fuel and gone adrift in the Mediterranean Sea called a rescue hotline on June 23rd.

According to position data recorded by Alarm Phone, the hotline operator, the dinghy was about 70nm off the coast of Malta, and therefore was within its SAR zone. Countries are obliged under international law to coordinate SAR operations for vessels within these zones.

However, Maltese authorities declined that distress call and at least 32 other communications about the situation, according to interviews with humanitarian groups involved in the rescue and a Reuters review of the groups’ notes, e-mails and recordings documenting the incident.

One person who answered the phone at Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre told a humanitarian worker who had called regarding the boat, “you’re keeping my line busy”, and then hung up, according to a recording of the call provided to Reuters by Germany-based SAR group Sea-Watch.

A Maltese military boat eventually reached the distressed vessel, but then refused the passengers’ direct pleas for rescue, interviewers from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were told by survivors. Well-known rescue boat Geo Barents later rescued the passengers and took them to Italy.

Last year Malta’s migrant arrivals fell by 87%, from 3,406 to 444, while a 2020 report from Amnesty International claimed that in some cases vessels that had already reached the Maltese SAR zone were “pushed back” to Libya.

The latest reported incident was just one example of Malta declining to rescue migrants bound for Europe whose vessels break down, according to NGOs operating in the region, but this case was particularly troubling because of the Maltese armed forces were alleged to have refused to aid the passengers – a potential breach of international law.

A spokesperson for Malta’s armed forces, which coordinates SAR efforts within Malta’s zone, claimed that all reports of irregular migrants in Malta’s SAR zone were “followed up immediately.”

Spokesperson Sabrina Borg wrote in an email to Reuters that “search and rescue operations are coordinated in accordance with the applicable international conventions, regulations and through the competent authority. As with all cases, the competent authorities exercise the duty of care.”

“From our experience, it’s highly unlikely that Malta will rescue,” said Sea-Watch spokesman Oliver Kulikowski, adding that “Malta is trying everything to avoid having responsibility and having people arriving in Malta.”

A home affairs ministry spokesperson said Malta wanted a fair and safe immigration and asylum system, in which people “genuinely in need of international protection are swiftly recognized” and those who lack a legal right to remain in Malta are returned to their countries of origin. Spokesman Neil Azzopardi Ferriggi said that “it is not acceptable that thousands of people continue risking their lives, trying to reach the EU, while smugglers continue profiting from the hopes and misery of migrants”.

MSF collected testimonies from three survivors and shared them with Reuters, which was unable to interview independently the survivors or confirm the full details of their accounts. Their whereabouts are unknown.

The rubber dinghy had left Sirte, Libya at around 03:00 local time on June 21st, two survivors told MSF. On board were 14 people from Syria and South Sudan. After a day and a half at sea, someone aboard made a distress call to Alarm Phone, a network that relays distress calls from the Mediterranean to emergency services. Alarm Phone alerted Maltese  and Italian authorities by email of the boat’s location, noting that it was out of fuel.