The Prime Minister’s Office has refused to flatly deny a reported clash between AFM soldiers and migrants on a boat stranded in Maltese waters on Thursday, hours before their eventual rescue.

An NGO that regularly announces the presence of migrant boats in the Mediterranean, Alarm Phone, on Thursday claimed that migrants had been attacked at sea by Maltese personnel.

“The 70 people in distress near Malta called us moments ago and said: We have an emergency here. Malta military came and cut cable of motor. Water is in the boat. Malta military said ‘I leave you to die in the water. Nobody will come to Malta’,” the NGO tweeted.

It later said that the panic-stricken migrants had called the NGO again, saying they were fearing for their lives.

“Please help us! We will die. We will die in the water. We will die in Maltese waters. The Malta military ship number is P52, the number of the ship. Please we will die. Now we are five days in the water and the water is in the boat now. Please help us.” 

An AFM spokeswoman said she had no comments to make while a spokesman for Prime Minister Robert Abela refused to give a clear answer when asked to deny or confirm the incident reported by the NGO.

The spokesman would only say that Malta had always lived up to its responsibilities.

“Recent years have shown that, with its limited resources, Malta has always saved lives, assumed disproportionate burden and observed international obligations. The mentioned 66 migrants were in fact rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta,” he said.

The migrants were allowed to enter Maltese waters as the government announced that it was no longer in a position to offer a safe port or guarantee the rescue of irregular immigrants.

On Friday, the government accused NGOs who operate sea rescue services of "facilitating human trafficking". That was followed by an ugly outburst on social media by the head of Malta's social welfare agency, Alfred Grixti, who said that the government should seize NGO vessels and sink them. 

Malta 'using pandemic to shelve its obligations' - NGOs

The government decision to close its ports was criticised by Alternattiva Demokratika, which said that the government was falling short of its moral and legal obligations. 

"There are no limits to solidarity, whatever the Prime Minister says," AD said.

Sixteen NGOs that work with migrants and refugees also said they were horrified by the move. In a statement they said they were shocked at the decision.

“We are shocked at the announcement that our ports are closed to persons rescued at sea.

“This will result in either people stranded out at sea for days, possibly weeks, or in their return to Libya, where they will probably face atrocious human rights violations,” they said.

“It is unacceptable for Malta to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to shelve its human rights obligations and endanger the lives of men, women and children,” they added.

Saying they appreciated the enormous challenge to secure public health, the NGOs said there were minimum standards that had to be met.

“We fear that Malta is exploiting the public health emergency to deprive migrants of their human dignity, adopting measures veiled as public health protection but having the effect of sacrificing migrants for Malta’s safety,” the NGOs contended.

They said international law was clear: “Under no circumstances is Malta permitted to return persons to a territory where their lives and safety would be at risk.

“A public health emergency does not allow Malta to abandon people out at sea as it does not exonerate Malta from its responsibility to ensure that rescued persons are not returned to Libya. We find this approach unlawful and despicable.”

The decision was also wrong on a moral level, they said, as it placed the nation’s safety above the lives of those men, women and children who fled their homes and were desperately attempting to reach safety.

Moreover, they said migrants were being detained in breach of their fundamental human rights, with the public health emergency further strengthening a detention regime that was last year declared to be illegal by Malta’s courts.

“Together with being manifestly illegal, the detention of hundreds in confined spaces with hardly any access to running water, fresh air, soap and privacy is a public health risk of enormous proportions. Alternatives do exist. Migrants are treated as disposable members of our community. National emergencies should be overcome with solidarity and compassion,” they said.

The statement was issued by Aditus Foundation; African Media Association Malta; The Critical Institute; Cross Culture International Foundation; Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants; Integra Foundation; Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta); KOPIN; Malta Emigrants’ Commission; Migrant Women Association Malta; People for Change Foundation; SOS Malta and Spark15.

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