All migrants reportedly stranded at sea have safely reached Italian territory, the Armed Forces of Malta said on Tuesday, contradicting claims made by humanitarian organisations.
The AFM released a statement after 37 civil society organisations expressed their concern about the fate of over 100 men, women and children reportedly in distress at sea.
Media reports on Sunday said a group of 110 people may be unaccounted for, with emergency hotline NGO Alarm Phone accusing the Armed Forces of Malta of ordering a rescue vessel to leave the scene of the drifting migrants' boat.
But the AFM said that the people aboard the boat had expressed a desire to reach Italy and had done so "on their own steam."
AFM provided a photograph, taken moments prior to the boat's entry in Italian territory, Lampedusa.
"The boat in the image reproduced, powered by two outboard engines and on a steady course and speed, is the same boat being portrayed by some media outlets as adrift at sea."
The AFM insisted that all allegations of boats sinking, left adrift or rescues being hindered are "false and unfounded".
Times of Malta had reached out to the AFM for information about the boats in distress on Sunday. A spokesperson was unavailable for comment.
NGOs given no information
The group of 37 NGOs responded to the AFM statement positively, saying they were greatly relieved to hear that the people aboard the boat had been safely disembarked.
The incident further confirmed their insistence on information being shared openly and transparently, they said.
"In the absence of such disclosure, particularly following request to the appropriate channels, it is inevitable for us to become concerned for the fate of persons who we believe to be missing, pushed-back or drowned," they said.
When contacted, both Sea Watch International and Alarm Phone said they had not received any information about the fate of the people at sea.
"We are happy if the boat arrived in Italy, but why did Malta refuse to inform us about this case beforehand?" a Sea Watch International spokesperson told Times of Malta.
Both NGOs noted that the Maltese authorities only provided information about the boat after significant pressure from civil society.
“If they have nothing to hide, why not give us this information? If they can give us proof they are in Italy that is fine,” the Sea Watch spokesperson said, adding that the AFM had a track record of lying and coordinating push-backs of asylum seekers.
An Alarm Phone spokesperson said the AFM had in the past been caught giving fuel to boats to help them reach Italy, and said the same seemed to have happened on this occasion.
'Not every boat is in distress' - AFM
The AFM said that Maltese authorities had maintained their duty of care and kept an eye on the boat throughout. Not every migrant boat on the high seas is "automatically a case of distress," the AFM said.
There are various instances where migrant boats in international waters do not require assistance and express intent to proceed autonomously to their intended destination, the Maltese army said.
It went on to criticise humanitarian NGOs, saying it was not the first time they spread false or incorrect information that could steer resources away from other cases where people are actually in distress.