Claims that a boat carrying dozens of migrants has sunk in Malta’s Search and Rescue Area are unfounded, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo said on Monday.
The claim was made by several international NGOs.
Bartolo said in a Facebook post that sources closely following migration-related developments within the Mediterranean confirmed with Television Malta that the boat which had allegedly sunk was not in Malta’s search and rescue area. Furthermore, the boat in question was actually an empty and torn dinghy spotted by Frontex (EU border agency) aerial reconnaissance.
Frontex later alerted the relevant authorities of various countries.
"Like this particular vessel, there are many more in circulation in the Mediterranean Sea in the area between Malta and Libya. This is in view of how, following interceptions of migrant boats both by NGOs, merchant vessels and military assets, those boats (mainly dinghies) which are used by migrants are left adrift," the minister said.
"The sighting of a derelict dinghy does not automatically mean that migrants were aboard and lost their lives, as is being alleged," the minister said.
"This is not the first instance of inaccurate information being communicated," he added.
The sighting of a derelict dinghy does not automatically mean that migrants were aboard and lost their lives
The minister also complained that although Malta was among the more enthusiastic and proactive EU member states that for many years had tried to broker a solution which would involve equal burden-sharing of migrant distribution among all of the EU, discussions remain at a standstill.
Frontex had said on Sunday that it was looking for the dinghy believed to be carrying dozens of migrants when it went missing after setting sail from Libya for Italy.
The UNHCR refugee agency also told AFP it was "very worried" about the fate of what could be 85 migrants lost in Mediterranean Sea.
Two German monitors of migrant crossings first reported spotting four boats in distress off the southern coast of Malta over the weekend.
Frontex later told AFP that one of the four boats had safely reached Italy and another two were still at sea.
One boat unaccounted for
It said a fourth boat initially spotted on Friday was unaccounted for.
"Frontex plane will fly again (Monday) morning in search of the remaining boat," a spokesman told AFP.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it appeared that the missing boat had capsized.
"We are very worried," UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told AFP.
Frontex said it had notified the coast guard authorities of Italy and Malta about the boats at sea.
Neither country's border authorities commented on the reported shipwreck when contacted by AFP.
Germany's Sea-Watch International group showed the boats' geolocation -- including one boat marked "unknown GPS contact lost" -- on its official Twitter account.
Sea-Watch presumed that the lost boat was carrying 85 people.
It said the other three boats were carrying 173 migrants in all.
Germany's United4Rescue monitor of migrant crossings said in a statement that it was receiving the same reports and feared for the lives of "dozens".
The Swiss-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the reports were "very worrying" but difficult to verify.
"In the absence of boats in the area, it is very difficult at the moment to confirm that there has been a shipwreck, or the number of victims involved," IOM Italy spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo told AFP.
"And unfortunately, from experience, we also think it is likely that there have been shipwrecks of which we are not aware."