According to a British and an Italian daily, Malta's coast guard pushed away and sent to Italy around 100 migrants stranded at sea in Maltese territorial waters. If true, the incident, which allegedly took place in mid-April, is a violation of international law.
In a joint investigation, the Guardian and Avvenire newspapers say they have evidence which shows how Malta's navy refused to rescue migrants stranded at sea and gave them fuel and directions to proceed to Italy.
"They came to us and said, 'Malta has a virus called corona if you've heard about it. We can't take you there because everyone is sick in Malta. And Malta is small and can't take all of you'," the two publications quoted one of the migrants.
"They gave us red life vests, a new engine and fuel and told us they would show us the route to Italy. Then they pointed guns at us and said: 'We give you 30 minutes'," the survivor added.
Alarm Phone supplied footage
The footage the Guardian and Avvenire published was supplied by Alarm Phone, a distress hotline for migrants in the Mediterranean. It showed around a dozen people swimming at sea, wearing red life vests and others sitting on a rubber dinghy, from where the scene was apparently filmed.
In the video, a vessel marked "AFM" can be seen manoeuvring beside them. Moreover, a coastline is visible in the background, which suggests that the incident took place near Malta's shores.
Alarm Phone claims the migrants, who first reached out to them on April 11, got back in touch with the NGO after they left their quarantine in Italy to share the rest of their story.
The migrants allegedly also told the NGO that an AFM vessel "accompanied them in the direction of Sicily before eventually leaving the scene."
Arrival in Italy
The migrants, who are believed to have started their treacherous journey on April 8 from Zliten, some 150 kilometers east of Libya's capital Tripoli, arrived in Pozzallo, Sicily on April 12.
Under international law, countries are obliged to rescue anyone in distress within its territorial waters, that is 12 nautical miles, or roughly 22 kilometers.
But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Malta, a member state of the European Union, has closed its ports to migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean.
With material from dpa, KNA