Survivors of a boat left stranded for days in Maltese waters have told rescuers how their cries for help were seen but ignored and how fellow passengers drowned in front of their eyes.

Malta and the EU have been accused of allowing 12 people to die at sea after five migrants were found dead on a boat, with another seven missing, also presumed dead.

The NGO Alarm Phone has now revealed a timeline of the incident, which suggests that authorities ignored calls for help and Malta orchestrated the return of the survivors to Libya. They are now locked in Tripoli's "inhumane" Tariq Al Sikka detention centre. 

One survivor is reported as saying: "We shouted for help and made signs. Three people tried to swim to this big boat as it started moving away. They drowned.

"We made signs to the aircraft with the phones and we held the baby up to show we were in distress.

"The aircraft saw us for sure, because it flashed us with a red light. Shortly after another boat came out of nowhere and picked us up," the survivors told NGOs. 

Tariq al-Sikka detention facility in Tripoli, Libya, in May 2017. Photo: UNHCRTariq al-Sikka detention facility in Tripoli, Libya, in May 2017. Photo: UNHCR

Malta, along with Italy, has closed its ports, citing coronavirus prevention measures as the reason.

Alarm Phone, a non-governmental organisation that receives calls from distressed people at sea, issued its account of the incident that unfurled this week, based on survivors' accounts, GPS data and communication with various authories. 

“All authorities failed to intervene, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to dramatically breach the law of the sea as well as human rights and refugee conventions. Apart from the Armed Forces of Malta, all these authorities hold responsibility for the death of twelve human beings and the suffering of dozens of others,” it said in a statement. 

The NGO said the Alarm Phone network, Sea-Watch and Mediterranea mobilised all their forces to prevent these deaths, but this was in vain. 

“ We tried but failed to mobilise rescue while all 63 people were still alive. We failed because European actors were set on letting them die,” it continued.

In a detailed reconstruction of the distress case and how it unfolded, the NGOs said Malta and other European authorities refused to rescue the people in distress.

There are also documents detailing communication with the Armed Forces of Malta, the Italian MRCC, the so-called Libyan coastguards and other European authorities, “who either refused to intervene or acted illegally”.

Timeline of a tragedy

April 9 - about 55 people (later confirmed 63 people), including seven women and three children, fled Libya from Garabulli on a precarious rubber boat.

April 10 - a Frontex aerial asset spotted three rubber boats with people on board in the Libyan SAR area. That night, they reached out to Alarm Phone while in distress at sea. They said that they were taking in water and that they needed help urgently. They were in international waters at the time so Alarm Phone informed Malta, Italy, and Libya. Over the next hours, Alarm Phone remained in contact with the people in distress and passed new GPS positions and details of the distress situation to relevant authorities.

April 11 - at 9.20am Alarm Phone finally reached the Libyan authorities on the phone, who stated: “The Libyan Coastguard now only does coordination work because of COVID-19, we can’t do any rescue action, but we are in contact with Italy and Malta.”

Alarm Phone kept in contact with the boat in distress. Several updated GPS positions were immediately shared but the informed authorities refused to engage in, or coordinate, a rescue operation for the approximately 55 people in distress, it said.

April 12 - at 12.45pm, Alarm Phone received the position from the boat in distress, clearly showing it in Maltese search and rescue. At 2pm, the people call again, desperately asking for help. After that, contact could not be re-established.

April 13 -  after contact with the boat had been lost for about 36 hours, both the Italian and Maltese authorities organised air surveillance missions and finally the boat in distress was spotted again in the Maltese Search and Rescue zone at 11.45pm.

April 14 - at 12.21pm, Malta sent out communication to all boats: “All ships transiting in the area to keep sharp lookout and assist if necessary.” It also stated that Malta would not be able to provide a place of safety. Around that time, the cargo ship IVAN established visual contact to the boat in distress. 

Shortly after, the cargo ship stopped one mile away from the boat in distress, and Malta ordered them to stay at the scene and monitor the boat in distress until rescue arrives. Due to high waves and the general adverse conditions at sea, the IVAN was unable to rescue the people in distress. An air asset of the Armed Forces of Malta was on scene during the duration of the operation, giving orders to the IVAN and the arriving two boats.

At 5am, a fishing vessel, and a second, yet unidentified vessel, arrived on scene and took the survivors on board, under coordination by the Armed Forces of Malta and the IVAN was ordered to leave the scene.

April 15 - Alarm Phone received the information that 56 people had been returned to Libya on board of the fishing boat. Among them, the bodies of 5 people who died during the journey due to dehydration and hunger. 7 people are missing.

According to the survivors, the crew of the fishing vessel led them to believe that they would be brought to safety in Europe. Instead, they were pushed back to Libya.

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