A group of four humanitarian NGOs dealing with the rescue of irregular migrants in the central Mediterranean have accused Malta of coordinating a “criminal mass pushback’ of 500 migrants to prison in Libya straight from Malta’s own search and rescue area.
Alarm Phone, Sea-Watch, Mediterranea Saving Humans and EMERGENCY this morning had harsh words of condemnation for Malta about the situation that developed over the last week and accused Malta of abdicating its humanitarian and legal responsibilities.
“Instead of bringing people who had tried to escape from the extreme violence people on the move experience in Libya to a place of safety, an authority of a European member state – namely RCC Malta – decided to organise a mass pushback by proxy at sea, forcing 500 people across 330 kilometres into a Libyan prison.”
They also accused Italy of not intervening to mobilise rescue efforts and guarantee the 500 migrants disembarkation at a place of safety, “given that Malta’s systematic non-assistance within the Maltese SAR zone has been long established”.
The NGOs said they repeatedly reached out to the Maltese and Italian authorities for on a boat they had been monitoring and which had gone missing over the weekend and fears that the 500 people aboard may have been intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya began to grow.
“These fears were confirmed in the morning of the following day: The 500 people had not been rescued. Instead, they had been towed back – over 330 kilometres – to the Libyan port of Benghazi – an illegal pushback coordinated by RCC Malta.
“According to relatives, the 500 people were brought to a prison in Benghazi.”
The NGOs are calling on the Maltese RCC “to fulfil its duties under international maritime law and to ensure that people in distress at sea are rescued with the subsequent disembarkation in a place of safety in Europe”.
They have also demanded that the Maltese and Italian RCC “transparently disclose what information they had on both the boat in distress, the unidentified fishing boat that carried out the illegal pushback, and the vessel Tareq Bin Zeyad, and what the involvement of the Maltese and Italian RCC was in the forced return of the 500 persons in distress.”
While the Maltese authorities have so far refused to answer questions from the press, the NGOs have some questions of their own.
These include questions about the identity of the Libyan fishing boat and its crew that carried out the pushback.
“Did the crew on the vessel that abducted the group in distress, under the coordination of RCC Malta, falsely tell the people they would rescue them and bring them to Europe?” they ask.
They also want to know why RCC Malta failed to coordinate the rescue of this boat in distress as the responsible authority in the Maltese SAR zone, why the Armed Forces of Malta were not immediately dispatched to assist the boat in distress, and why RCC Malta failed to order any of the several merchant vessels in the vicinity to assist the boat in distress.
They also point out how the EUNAVFOR MED Operation Irini FGS Bonn was only 100 kilometres from the boat in distress and are asking why it had not intervened. They are also asking about the role of the Tareq Bin Zeyad which was drifting close to the people in distress on 24 May but which disappeared shortly after.
The NGOs add, “The Tareq Bin Zeyad is normally on duty in the area of Benghazi port only. This vessel was named by a well-known Libyan militia, operating in that area. It has been deployed in the perpetration of numerous war crimes and the violation of people’s fundamental rights.”
The sequence of events
It was on the afternoon of 23 May that Alarm Phone says it was called by a large group of people in distress who had fled from Tobruk in Libya. Among the approximately 500 people were people from Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as 55 children and 45 women.
The engine of the iron fishing vessel with two decks had stopped working and the boat was adrift. Alarm Phone confirms, “The GPS position that they shared showed them more than 30 nautical miles within the Maltese search and rescue (SAR) zone where the Maltese authorities have the responsibility to coordinate a rescue operation.”
Alarm Phone alerted RCC Malta and MRCC Rome as well as several vessels of the civil fleet that were operative far off the coast of western Libya.
In the following hours, the situation for the 500 people in distress worsened as more and more water entered the boat and those on the lower deck had to escape to the upper deck.
Several merchant vessels passed by in the distance and did not intervene to assist, the NGO reports.
On the night between 23 and 24 May, the passengers told Alarm Phone that a merchant vessel had almost collided with them.
“This,” according to the NGOs, “further indicates that RCC Malta failed to inform the ships in the area about the drifting boat with 500 people in distress.”
The last time Alarm Phone spoke to the group was on 24 May at 6:20h CEST. The people reported an unchanged situation, with the boat remaining adrift but “the responsible authority for the Maltese search and rescue zone, RCC Malta, continued to not respond to the distress alerts.”
The satellite phone was used one last time at 11:44h CEST but it is not known who had been called.
“After that, neither the relatives and friends of the people on board who had contacted Alarm Phone, nor Alarm Phone were able to reconnect to the people in distress again. Over the following hours, more and more people started to reach out to Alarm Phone, asking about the fate of their loved ones.”
Sea-Watch’s aircraft Seabird 2 arrived in the area of the last known position and searched for the boat in distress that afternoon but the crew was unable to find the large fishing vessel with about 500 people onboard.
“How could such a big group on a fishing vessel disappear?” the NGOs ask
On the night between 24 and 25 May, Life support of the EMERGENCY and other vessels of the civil fleet reached the area and started searching for the boat during the whole day.
“No state asset helped in the search. Instead, authorities kept silent about the fate of the group.
“Also, the aircraft Seabird 2 searched again for the missing boat on 25 May, covering even a larger area than the day before.
“The capacities of the NGO ships could have been utilised to save lives rather than wasting them on a search that was already known to be futile.”