The Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) engaged in dangerous manoeuvres at sea and failed to assist migrants adrift in the Mediterranean over the weekend of April 10-13, according to a new report by sea rescue support non-governmental organization (NGO) AlarmPhone.
AlarmPhone reports that four separate migrant boats reached out to them to raise the alarm as they drifted in the Mediterranean over the Easter weekend.
“The Easter weekend was violent and deadly in the Mediterranean Sea,” the NGO says.
“Shortly after Italy and Malta declared their harbours ‘unsafe’ and closed for migrant landings, migrant boats were left adrift in European Search and Rescue (SAR) zones while being surveyed by European authorities from the air. Several people in distress were left to die, starving or drowning while being closely watched by Malta and Frontex,” AlarmPhone writes in the May 20 report.
Of the four boats, one made it to Portopalo di Capopassero, Sicily, on 13 April and one drifted in Malta’s search and rescue (SAR) zone for days before NGO Aita Mari came to its aid on the same day.
A third boat with 63 passengers was pushed back to Libya on April 14/15 and the fourth overcrowded and unseaworthy boat carrying 101 migrants was, according to witness testimony and video evidence, provided with equipment and escorted towards Italy by Maltese authorities.
On April 12, the fourth boat arrived in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, some 500 kilometres from Zliten in Libya where it launched on April 8, much to the surprise of Italian authorities.
The Mayor of Pozzallo, Roberto Ammatuna said the flimsy craft’s surprising arrival was, “undoubtedly the new strategy of the traffickers, who most likely transferred many desperate people from a mother ship to a smaller boat.”
After reconnecting with some of the migrants from that vessel on May 3, AlarmPhone says subsequent investigations revealed it was not traffickers but the Armed Forces of Malta who facilitated the migrants miraculous arrival in Pozzallo.
In the latest distressing incident involving Maltese authorities, migrants told the NGO that the Maltese authorities failed to assist the boat, ran dangerous manoeuvres around people who had thrown themselves overboard in an attempt to be rescued, and then provided the vessel with fuel and a new engine, before escorting it in the direction of Italy.
When the boat arrived within sightof the Maltese coast line, a commercial vessel approached and told them they were 30 minutes away from a port. Then a white boat arrived and provided the passengers with red life vests and left without offering further assistance or information.
The boat continued towards Malta but ran out of fuel and then was intercepted by an AFM boat. AFM officers ordered the migrants to hand over the boat’s satellite phone and GPS which were reprogrammed with Libya as the end destination. The officers also threatened to turn them back towards Libya.
“They came to us and said, ‘Malta has a virus called corona if you’ve heard about it. We can’t take you there because everyone is sick in Malta. And Malta is small and can’t take all of you’,” one of the passengers reported.
Between 20 and 25 frightened migrants jumped into the sea, in their life vests, to try and force the Maltese military to rescue them. A video taken from the boat then shows the Maltese vessel ‘PO2’ making dangerous passes very close to the migrants in the water.
One of the migrants told AlarmPhone: “we said no, we won’t go back to Libya, we made it to Malta. Anyways, we jumped into the water.”
“Then we got into the water, they were likely to kill us,” a second passenger reported. “They made waves, and we drank sea water, and we were very tired because the sea water was very salty. They have done all this so that we wouldn’t go into Malta.”
New tactic, directions for Italy
After that incident, a second, larger AFM vessel arrived. The migrants report they were threatened with guns by the crew members from the AFM vessels. The Maltese officers then tried to tow the migrant boat, now out of fuel, damaging its engine. The migrants continued to protest and refuse to return to Libya. AFM then changed tack, telling migrants, “ok we made a decision we won’t return you to Libya.”
Instead, survivors say the AFM provided them with five gallons (40L) of fuel, a new engine to replace the damaged one, and reprogrammed their GPS for Sicily. An orange boat then came alongside and instructed the migrant boat to follow it. The migrant boat followed the larger one for several hours before the larger boat changed course, telling them to continue straight ahead to Italy where they landed on April 12 in Pozzallo harbour.
“Then the big boat came to us, and told us ‘come behind me, follow me’. We left Malta on our left, and we were on its right, so we didn’t enter Malta,” a passenger told AlarmPhone.
“We went behind him for 12 hours, the whole night. From 6:00 in the afternoon until 6:00 in the morning. They gave us fuel. And early in the morning they told us to always go straight ahead, ‘don’t go this way or that way’. It left us at sea and he left.”
Upon arrival in Sicily, authorities placed the migrants in quarantine.
The incident raises a number of questions about the Armed Forces of Malta’s conduct, their understanding of Search and Rescue operation standards, as well as Italian and European Union knowledge of the incident. AlarmPhone reiterated that “rescuing people in distress at sea is an unconditional obligation for all captains of all boats around, as well as for coastal states.”
A spokesperson for the Italian Coastguard told The Guardian Malta did not inform them about the boat. The AFM and Maltese government are yet to comment on the video and survivors’ accounts.