Migrants aboard search and rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 | Photo: Sea-Watch.org/Chris Grodotzki
Migrants aboard search and rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 | Photo: Sea-Watch.org/Chris Grodotzki

The German sea rescue NGO Sea-Watch has accused the Maltese government of deliberate inaction when it comes to saving the lives of migrants and refugees in Mediterranean waters. In a series of tweets, the private sea rescue organization said that Maltese armed forces only appeared to intervene in such cases when they received according orders.

The accusations followed a stand-off between Sea-Watch and the Maltese government lasting several days after the group had rescued about 120 migrants at sea in the course of several days earlier in January. 

The German NGO said that Malta was slow and reluctant to react after Alarmphone, the main distress hotline used by migrants in the Mediterranean, had shared GPS coordinates of one of the boats that Sea-Watch went on to rescue. Maltese forces allegedly arrived at the location but did not take any action for two hours, despite the conditions at sea taking a turn for the worse at the time. 

The Maltese government has not reacted to the accusations yet.

Alarmphone stresses efforts of 'civil fleet'

In its press release from January 13, Alarmphone says it was alerted to 22 boats in distress escaping from Libya in the time period of merely four days last week (January 9-12). While around 700 migrants were intercepted and taken back to Libya, around 500 were rescued. 237 of the rescued migrants were taken aboard by the efforts of NGO crews and the cooperation of the "Civil Fleet": Sea Watch 3, Moonbird, Open Arms, and Alarm Phone.   

On the case of Malta, Alarmphone writes: "On Friday, we were alerted by two boats in distress within the Maltese Search and Rescue zone with 50 and 54 people on board. We informed both Sea Watch 3 and Maltese authorities. According to the testimonies of the people in distress and of the Sea Watch 3 crew, vessels of the Armed Forces Malta were on scene, monitoring at least one of the boats in distress without rescuing the people, putting their lives in danger. They engaged in a rescue operation only under the pressure of Sea Watch 3." 

The unending issue of migrant redistribution 

Various rescue organizations have had run-ins with the Maltese and Italian governments over the past year, as both governments refused to accept migrants without assurances from EU that the rescued individuals would largely be redistributed to other countries. 

The European Union eventually agreed to commit to creating a redistribution mechanism for migrants in October 2019 but has not finalized a deal to that end yet.


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