MSF ‘appalled, outraged’ by Malta’s inaction in its search and rescue zone

Doctors Without Borders says hundreds could have died this weekend had it not intervened


Trouble is brewing again on the high seas between Malta, Italy and Libya, with Doctors Without Borders saying it was “appalled” and “outraged” by the inaction of the Armed Forces of Malta within its search and rescue area this weekend.

Hundreds of people would have died had the international charity and two others not intervened and saved lives when Malta failed to do so even though, according to the NGO, Malta had been informed of the situation all along but turned a blind eye.

“We are once again appalled that the Armed Forces of Malta has neglected its legal obligation to coordinate these rescues and provide assistance, even though the relevant authorities were informed all along.

Had it not been for the NGOs’ joint efforts in less than a single day, MSF says almost 400 people could have perished.

“Indifference and lack of coordination by competent authorities is not acceptable,” it said.

The international charity, which has dispatched a rescue vessel, the Geo Barents, to the central Mediterranean, reported a busy day on Friday, with 268 people having been rescued within four hours from four boats in distress that it says were within Malta’s search and rescue area.  Those rescued were now safe aboard the rescue vessel and are being cared for by MSF’s team.

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders in English) took to Twitter to fire a broadside at the Maltese government’s inaction in the face of the prospect of multiple deaths at sea within the region for which Malta is responsible.

“We are outraged that the Armed Forces of Malta has neglected its legal obligation to coordinate the rescues and provide assistance, even though the relevant authorities have been informed from the very first moment.”

An image from this weekend’s rescues. Photo: MSF

MSF reported how on Friday night, in complete darkness, its team first rescued 119 people, including seven minors, from a wooden boat following a distress alert relayed by humanitarian NGO Alarm Phone. Those, too, are currently receiving “much-needed care” from MSF’s medical team.

This was in addition to the rescue of another 82 people, including four minors, who had left Libya on an overcrowded and unstable wooden boat.

“During the crossing,” MSF said, since the ramshackle boat was so overcrowded, “some people had no choice but to sit on the lower deck of the wooden boat, along with fuel jars. These people could have died of fuel intoxication. We could have encountered dead bodies if our team had not arrived in time.”

In yet another rescue that MSF says Malta had been responsible for, 103 people including 22 children and a man with a broken leg were rescued from a wooden boat in distress located in international waters.

“Vulnerable people are forced to flee in such dangerous conditions due to the lack of legal and safe alternatives. Everyone is now safe on board the Geo Barents and are being cared for by the team,” MSF reported.

MSF personnel recover belongings from a ramshackle wooden boat that was reportedly in distress in Malta’s SAR. Photo: MSF

There are currently another two other humanitarian vessels with hundreds more irregular migrants who were rescued in international waters between Libya and Malta – SOS Méditerranée’s Ocean Viking with 234 on board and SOS Humanity’s Humanity 1, which is carrying 180 rescued people aboard. None of the ships have, however, been able to make port anywhere nearby as of Sunday afternoon.

MSF’s Geo Barents was west of Malta and south of Sicily, the Ocean Viking was west of Malta and south of Sicily and the SOS Humanity was well north of Malta and east of Sicily with, between then, hundreds of rescued irregular migrants aboard needing to reach terra firma to receive proper care.

A rescued woman being helped aboard the Geo Barents. Photo: MSF

The developments come as Italy’s new right-wing Giorgia Meloni government is closing Italian ports, once again, to NGO rescue ships.

Matteo Salvini, now Infrastructure and Transport Minister, said Italian ports will be closed once again to NGO rescue ships, as had happened when he was interior minister between 2018 and 2019, when there had been major standoffs between the Maltese and Italian governments over responsibility for rescued irregular migrants.

“Message to human traffickers and their accomplices: as we said in our election programme, Italy will no longer tolerate the business of clandestine immigration and uncontrolled landings,” Salvini, under whose remit Italian ports now fall, warned on Twitter.

Referring to those aboard the Ocean Viking and Humanity 1, he said, “The first has a Norwegian flag while the second is German. Let NGOs set course for their countries, not Italy.”

Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi confirmed this weekend while speaking on speaking on Rai Uno’s ‘Porta a Porta’ that the ships’ flag states should be responsible for taking in the rescued migrants, and not the closest safe port of call as per international law.

An image from this weekend’s multiple rescues. Photo: MSF

This is the second time in the space of as many weeks that Malta has drawn MSF’s ire and criticism.

On 19 October, 23 people were sent to Egypt on the instructions of Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre after having been at sea for four days in inclement weather conditions and with very limited supplies of food and water, which led to accusations that Malta violated international law.

In a joint statement, four NGOs – Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Médecins Sans Frontières and SeaWatch – said, “The lack of clear guidance and the unnecessary delays in coordinating the rescue deliberately put the lives of the 23 people on board at imminent risk”.


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Francis Said
Francis Said
30 days ago

Maybe the Maritime section of the AFM should use their patrol boats to catch fish and sell it at reasonable prices for Maltese consumers.
Certainly they are not doing much to save lives at sea!!!

29 days ago

Maybe we should ask the PM if Malta’s sea has been sold to some other country. This government has sold out everything to others , starting from our citizenship to our energy and hospitals. What was left was the sea around us.

Ronald Caruana
Ronald Caruana
29 days ago

What’s Dalli doing, I thought he was supposed to coordinate, or is his just another phantom job?

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