A boat drifting southeast of Malta, sighted by the Italian Coast Guard and reported to the Maltese authorities | Photo: ARCHIVE/ANSA/GUARDIA COSTIERA MALTA /DC
A boat drifting southeast of Malta, sighted by the Italian Coast Guard and reported to the Maltese authorities | Photo: ARCHIVE/ANSA/GUARDIA COSTIERA MALTA /DC

In the wake of the latest deadly migrant boat incident off the Libyan coast, Malta has once again been accused of ignoring alarms and leaving men, women and children to die. This time the boat that capsized was just outside the Maltese search and rescue (SAR) zone. Once again the Maltese authorities chose to ignore the alarms, some say.

"This is another case in which Malta has refused to comply with its international obligations for rescues at sea. It has adopted a migration strategy that leaves men, women and children to drown or foists the responsibility onto other EU member states," said Neil Falzon, the director of the Aditus human rights foundation in Malta. He is one of the few dissenting voices in a country with tight migration policies.

Over the years, the smallest state in the EU has consolidated its policy of reducing to the absolute minimum its rescue operations. Very few migrants are allowed to land on the island while a hardline stance is taken against undocumented migrants.

Maltese SAR Zone

In Malta the armed forces (AFM) are in charge of search and rescue operations in the SAR zone stretching from the Strait of Sicily to the island of Crete. Proportional to its small population (approximately 520,000 inhabitants) the Maltese SAR zone is very large -- the naval vessels and aircraft available are hardly sufficient to cover the entire zone.

Malta has recently purchased from Italy a multirole patrol vessel with a landing deck for helicopters. However, the crew for the vessel have reportedly not yet completed their training and the AFM has only three helicopters.

UN condemns Malta's long history of not helping

Over the years several rights organizations have documented ignored calls for help, and have criticized Malta for not doing enough to rescue and assist migrants in distress at sea.

Last October the distress hotline Alarm Phone signed a joint statement with MSF, RescueMed and SeaWatch stating that: "On 26 September 2022, 23 people were sent to Egypt on the instructions of the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) of Malta, after being rescued in the Maltese search and rescue (SAR) region by the merchant vessel Shimanami Queen, navigating under the Panama state flag. At the time of the rescue, those on board the small boat had already been at sea for four days, in poor weather conditions and with very limited supplies of food and water."

On May 27, UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticized pushbacks at sea committed more or less openly by Malta, as well as "horrific" living conditions in its migrant detention centers and even incitement to suicide.

In 2020, the Repubblika NGO reported to the judiciary a secret pact between Malta and Libya to take migrants back to the North African country but the inquiry seems to have simply disappeared from public attention.

"It is unacceptable for Malta to use human lives as political pawns," the Aditus director said. "The European Union should condemn the infantile and dangerous moves of a government that always pretends nothing has happened. We expect Malta to comply with its obligations and make both its decisions and necessary information public."

Malta urges EU to work with Libya to stop traffickers

Responding to ANSA's questions about the latest deadly boat incident off the Libyan coast, Maltese government spokesman Edward Montebello on Tuesday said that Europe should work closely with the Libyan authorities "to stop such criminal behaviors".

He added that the criminal networks and human traffickers responsible for these deaths should be handed over to the judiciary.


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