Maltese authorities instructed a merchant vessel to stand by and not rescue 70 people in distress aboard a small boat stranded in Malta’s search and rescue zone on Sunday evening, according to NGO SeaWatch.
The captain of the merchant vessel Calajunco M decided to neverthless save the migrants, taking them instead to the Italian port of Trapani, a move which SeaWatch called a reaffirmation of a basic law of the sea “whoever is in danger must be rescued”.
SeaWatch first spotted the small boat carrying 70 people in Maltese SAR waters using their observation plane, the SeaBird2. Responding to a mayday call by that plane, the Calajunco M’s captain said that he had received instructions from Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre to restart engines and continue heading north, abandoning the in-distress boat and the people aboard it.
According to a report by the Italian La Repubblica, the Calajunco M’s crew first handed out life jackets and water while waiting for further instructions or intervention by Maltese or Italian authorities.
As Malta’s RCC continued to employ their usual non-response tactics, the Calajunco M’s captain reached out instead to Italian authorities in Rome, who directed the captain to take the people aboard and to the port of Trapani rescuing them from increasing winds and the perilous night ahead.
Ieri #Seabird2 ha individuato un’imbarcazione in difficoltà con 70 persone.
Allertato, il mercantile Calajunco M ha soccorso le persone e si dirige ora verso Trapani. Ringraziamo equipaggio e comandante per avere riaffermato la legge del mare: chi si trova in pericolo va soccorso pic.twitter.com/eDhEjUG5LW
— Sea-Watch Italy (@SeaWatchItaly) July 2, 2023
SeaWatch was one of four humanitarian NGOs that in May had accused Malta of coordinating the criminal mass pushback of 500 people to prisons in Libya straight from Malta’s SAR zone.
Alarm Phone, Sea-Watch, Mediterranea Saving Humans and EMERGENCY had said “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.”
Earlier in April, the United Nations had noted how more than 3,000 migrants had been pushed back to just Libya alone, facing sexual violence, torture or coercive sexual practices in exchange for water, food or essential items.
On 16 April, NGO Alarm Phone similarly accused Maltese authorities of ordering merchant vessels not to assist two boats carrying some 60 migrants in need of assistance within Malta’s SAR zone, calling it a “cruel prevention of rescue”. Eventually, after repeated criticism and outcry, Maltese authorities gave the go-ahead for the people to be rescued.
In the almost four months preceding that operation, Malta had rescued just one migrant at sea according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.