Updated 5.30pm with port request

A boat with 96 migrants on board was rescued by a private vessel in Malta's search and rescue zone on Saturday after Maltese authorities ignored a request for assistance, according to the NGO Alarm Phone.

The Open Arms rescue vessel is now requesting to disembark the migrants, among them 17 minors and two women, in Malta, a spokesperson told Times of Malta.

Alarm Phone said it had received a distress call at 3am on Saturday from a boat which fled from Libya and was in Malta’s search zone.

“We tried to get in touch with the rescue centre in Malta, but they never pick up the phone and sometimes just hung up immediately without answering,” an Alarm Phone spokesperson said.

“While it is very stressful, it has become standard, and we are used to Maltese rescue centres not answering or hanging up."

The migrants were rescued around midday by an Open Arms rescue ship.

The vessel was already carrying 157 migrants from a rescue which took place on December 31 outside the Libyan search zone. The ship now has more than 250 people on board.

"Open Arms is still in Maltese waters and hopefully will reach a safe port soon to disembark," the Alarm Phone spokesperson said, adding that the Armed Forces of Malta still had not responded to distress calls. 

A spokesperson for Open Arms said a medical team was supervising all those people on board and compiling information about the passengers which would be put together in a report for the authorities.

The Armed Forces of Malta declined to provide any further information when contacted. 

Alarm Phone is an emergency hotline NGO which receives SOS messages from migrants crossing the Mediterranean and then relays them to the national authorities, depending on their location. 

This is not the first time such a claim has been made. In November, the NGO claimed Malta was guilty of “systematic acts of non-assistance” and was implicated in the ongoing loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Migration, which has always been a hot topic in Malta, has made headlines throughout 2020.

In May and June, the government held 425 rescued migrants on tourist boats just outside Maltese waters for a month, insisting that the country's ports were closed because of COVID-19, and that other European states should take the migrants because its detention centres were full.

Prime Minister Robert Abela said in October that “Malta is full up for migrants.”

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