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Maltese coastguard abandons 25 refugees within its search and rescue area

Refugee rescuers Sea Watch accuse Malta's coastguards of only being interested in ‘sending people back to Libya’

THE Maltese coastguard's raison d'etre was called into question today after one of its vessels  abandoned a refugee boat within its search-and-rescue (SAR) zone.

The Moonbird, a monitoring aircraft belonging to German refugee rescue charity Sea Watch, informed the authorities yesterday that it had spotted around 25 people without lifejackets trying to use their hands to paddle a small wooden boat in the central Mediterranean.

Italy's maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCC) later contacted its Maltese counterpart, telling it that the case is within its SAR and to assume responsibility.

This morning the Moonbird found the boat alongside an Antigua and Barbarian container ship.

Later,  an Armed Forces Malta vessel, the P52, arrived on scene, deployed a smaller boat which approached the refugees – only to leave them adrift in the sea minutes later.

The Moonbird observed and photographed the entire incident.

Felix Weiss, the aircraft's media co-ordinator, told the Star the P52 and Malta's RCC refused to speak with them.

“For us it's quite simple, this unbearable behaviour of the alleged RCC in Malta is the reason why we are currently in the air with Moonbird almost every day, documenting and making public repeated human rights violations," Mr Weiss said.  

“Instead of initiating rescue operations at sea, European authorities are increasingly taking an active part in human-rights violations in the Mediterranean.

“So what RCC Malta is doing has not been interested in rescuing people for months, but only in sending people back to Libya.”

Deanna, an activist with the migrant distress hotline network Alarm Phone, told the Star how she and her fellow activists had witnessed Malta refusing to allow merchant vessels to disembark refugees rescued in its SAR and keeping them at sea for days.  

“This happened in July with the livestock carrier Talia, stranded at sea for five days with 52 rescued people, and it is happening again right now with the Etienne — which has been held off for seven days," she said.

"The Maltese authorities are de facto seizing these merchant vessels, in violation of their obligation to provide a place of safety as quickly as possible to the rescued.

"On the one hand, this prevents the rescued from having access to asylum applications and to much-needed medical care. On the other, it damages financially the merchant vessels engaged in the rescue, in what seems an attempt to deter merchant vessels from rescuing migrants in distress, thereby amplifying the already existing rescue gap in Malta’s SAR zone.”

The Maltese government announced last month that it was planning on quarantining rescued refugees in off-shore “accommodation vessels.”

The Times of Malta reported yesterday that 14 companies have so far placed bids for the contract, the cheapest of which will cost the government tens of thousands of Euros a day.

The Maltese government and RCC have yet to respond to the Star’s request for comment.

Update August 13, 2020:

Sea Watch told the Star this morning that the refugees' boat reached the Italian island of Lampedusa late last night.

The Moonbird relocated the refugees further north in the central Mediterranean yesterday during a second mission in the afternoon. The Maltese patrol boat, P52, was approximately 10 nautical miles away.

This time, however, the boat’s engine was working and everyone on board was wearing life jackets. It’s not clear where these came from or how and when their engine was fixed.

Later, the refugees’ engine broke. The P52 launched one of its smaller rubber boats, which approached the refugees and fixed it for them.When the Moonbird left the scene at 5.44pm, the refugees were heading north towards Lampedusa with the Maltese still on their tail.

Around midnight last night, an Italian coastguard vessel arrived into Lampedusa with the refugees.The Maltese government and RCC have still not responded to the Star’s request for comment.

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