Two hundred and fifty people in distress on a small boat in Malta’s search and rescue zone were intercepted by a vessel belonging to the Libyan Tarek Ben Zayed militia group on Saturday afternoon despite assurances by Maltese authorities that they would handle the case themselves, according to humanitarian NGOs Alarm Phone and SeaWatch International.
Alarm Phone has claimed that the Libyan vessel abducted people escaping from Libya before. SeaWatch said it “feared people were illegally pushed back to Libya,” raising questions on who coordinated the interception.
The pilot of SeaWatch’s observation plane, SeaBird, claimed that Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) had confirmed to him that “they were on top of the case” on Friday morning, in a radio communication published by SeaWatch on Twitter.
🔴 Urgent: Distress situation! #Seabird spotted a boat with ~250 people onboard after an emergency call by #Alarmphone. @EUNAVFOR_MED aircraft was likely present. Merchant vessel SAN FELIX was ordered by Malta to leave the scene. They are out of fuel and are adrift and alone. pic.twitter.com/1oujjyggxb
— Sea-Watch International (@seawatch_intl) July 7, 2023
After the Seabird spotted the migrant boat on Friday morning, the NGO established contact and said people on the vessel reported a severely ill person who would need medical treatment to survive.
The interception by the Libyan militia vessel happened almost 24 hours after the migrant boat was first spotted, with Alarm Phone confirming that the 250 people were taken aboard.
Last Sunday, Maltese authorities instructed a merchant vessel to stand by and not rescue 70 people in distress on a small boat stranded in Malta’s search and rescue zone.
Maltese authorities have been implicated in several pushbacks, with a United Nations mission confirming last April that many people were sent back to countries to face terrible treatment in detention centres, subjected to sexual violence, torture and coercive sexual practices in exchange for water, food and other necessities.
In May, a group of four humanitarian NGOs, which included Alarm Phone and Sea Watch, accused Malta of coordinating another “criminal mass pushback” of 500 migrants to prison in Libya straight from Malta’s own search and rescue area.
Besides standing accused of being involved in mass pushbacks, Malta’s RCC regularly employs non-response tactics with people aboard migrant vessels, refusing to assist even when people on board face fatal conditions.