Drastically fewer asylum seekers reached Malta this year compared to the same period in 2020, while sea arrivals in Italy shot up and boat interceptions by the Libyan coastguard almost doubled.

A total of 147 migrants have disembarked in Malta between January and May, in contrast to the 1,273 who arrived in the same period last year, according to UNHCR data.

Italy, on the other hand, has seen a 206 per cent increase in asylum-seeker arrivals by sea during the same period, pushing the Italian Prime Minister to push for so-called migrant burden-sharing deals among EU partners.

Italy recorded 13,298 arrivals this year so far, compared to 4,305 last year, according to UNHCR.

The overwhelming majority of these arrivals, 12,157, entered through ports in Sicily, particularly through Lampedusa, which received around 2,200 asylum seekers in one weekend earlier this month.

During the same period, UN records show that Libya intercepted almost double the number of boats leaving its shores – from 3,625 in the first five months of 2020 to 6,060 this year to date.

'Fewer rescues by AFM' - Alarm Phone

A member of migrant emergency hotline, Alarm Phone, said since around May 2020, the NGO has observed fewer rescues carried out by the Armed Forces of Malta and more migrants pushed back to Libya.

“We are observing that the AFM doesn’t go out for rescues at all to boats in distress in Maltese search and rescue zone, south of Lampedusa. Instead, they count on merchant vessels and the Libyan coastguard to push boat people back to Libya,” Britta Rabe said.

Alarm Phone said it had observed that with the support of air surveillance, Malta was doing its utmost to prevent boats entering the island’s search and rescue zone, in line with the Malta-Libya deal.

Last May, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Malta and Libya to set up a coordination unit in each country to assist in operations against illegal migration. 

Discussions between the two countries also involved building a realistic strategy to slow down the flow of migrants into Libya.

The Armed Forces of Malta has repeatedly rejected claims that they were ignoring calls for help.

The AFM’s definition of ‘distress’ was also a reason behind the decrease in rescues, she highlighted.

“Any boat that is still moving is not in distress, despite it being overcrowded, and people not having life vests,” she explained.

There were also more boats reaching Lampedusa autonomously, which could be linked with a shift in departure points in Libya, she pointed out.

“We are observing that more boats are leaving from west of Tripoli and fewer boats are departing from the east,” Rabe said.

While boats from east of Tripoli were likely to head in the direction of Malta, those leaving from the west of the city were more inclined to move in the direction of Lampedusa.

There were tensions in the war-torn country that could be behind this change in departure points, she said.

Departures from Garabulli and al-Khums, for example, which are geographically located close to the south of Malta, stopped completely for a while in the last year, as raids and police controls were reported to stop migrants from leaving.

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