Updated 9.50pm, adds healthcare professionals' statement
Five migrants in a boat left stranded in Maltese waters have been found dead, with survivors saying another seven people are missing, presumed dead.
The NGO Alarm Phone was the first to announce the tragedy, saying Malta was "responsible for the deaths and for returning the survivors to war, rape and torture".
The International Organisation for Migration confirmed that five people were found dead aboard the boat. Survivors told the IOM that a further seven people are missing.
Sources said that the boat was the last of four that had been left floating in Malta’s search and rescue zone for days. It was intercepted by a commercial vessel on Wednesday.
This vessel then took the migrants to the west coast of Libya and handed 51 survivors as well as the bodies of the five dead people over to the Libyan coast guard, who disembarked them in the north African country.
The IOM said that survivors were taken into detention in Tripoli.
Sources said the migrants had likely died of exhaustion and dehydration after several days marooned.
The boat had been drifting in Libya's search and rescue area for days before it made its way to Malta's waters, and sources said it was unclear when the deaths happened.
Both Malta and Italy last week declared their ports closed to migrant disembarkation, citing the COVID-19 outbreak as their primary concern.
Allowing people to die in name of public health 'contradictory' - healthcare professionals
But more than 250 healthcare professionals and students in healthcare, including more than 100 medical doctors, have signed an open letter calling for Malta’s Prime Minister to reconsider his stance.
While it acknowledges that the COVID-19 situation is serious, the letter points out that allowing people to die in the name of public health is contradictory.
In a comment accompanying his signature, Professor Albert Fenech said: “Life before politics… as for health, we are perfectly capable of testing and isolation.”
In the letter, the signatories say that they cannot abandon their moral and ethical responsibilities and call on the state to likewise not abandon its positive obligation to protect lives.
They acknowledge that rescue and disembarkation are not totally risk-free, and call for steps to be taken to mitigate the risks rather than violate the human rights of people in distress at sea: “If we allow the government to pay for public health with people’s lives, we will have failed in our obligations as citizens, as healthcare workers, and as a nation.”
The initiative is supported by The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation: “We're all covering our moves to prevent the spread of the virus. We shouldn't be covering our eyes to ignore the spread of injustice.”
The letter can be read in the pdf link below.
Malta followed established procedure - government
In a statement later, the government said Malta’s Rescue and Coordination Centre said the boat had been in distress for a number of days while in Libya’s search and rescue area.
The European Union was aware of the boat in Libya’s SAR and although it flew its aircraft over the area, it did not send any vessels to pick up the migrants, it said.
The boat eventually entered Malta’s SAR and Malta immediately followed the established coordination procedures, communicating the necessary information through NAVTEX, an automated system used to transmit navigational alerts, the government said.
It said the Armed Forces of Malta also made a number of flights to pinpoint the boat’s location after it entered Malta’s SAR. During one of these flights, the boat’s exact location was established and the AFM called nearby vessels to assist.
It was then that the migrants were assisted by a commercial vessel that was sent to the area to assist. Later, a Libyan fishing vessel took the migrants on board, the government added.
It said that during this time, the AFM was also coordinating four other similar cases.
The government said that while Malta was still engaged in coordination work related to migrant boats, it reiterated the need for the European Union to launch a humanitarian mission in Libya for people to stop risking their lives trying to flee the country.
It said it remained committed to continue fighting migrant smuggling and facilitators of irregular travel.
'Sadness and anger'
Malta's decision to close the ports has sparked anger from human rights NGOs, and 37 had joined together to appeal against the move in a social media campaign using the slogan #dontletthemdrown.
In a statement on their behalf, Neil Falzon, from the NGO Aditus, said they were "deeply saddened and angered" at news of the death of migrants at sea and at the "illegal push-back" of the survivors to Libya.
Malta was "legally and morally responsible" for protecting the lives of those who requested help whilst in national waters but had instead played "political games, resulting in needless and cruel loss of life".
"This is a terrible day for Malta, for human rights and for our nation's legacy," he said.
The International Organisation for Migration on Wednesday tweeted about the return of the migrants to Libya, reiterating its call for no one to be disembarked in an unsafe country.
Two of the four migrant boats made their way to Sicily over the weekend, and one was intercepted by a Spanish rescue NGO.
'Malta has responsibility to act but it cannot be left alone'
In a joint statement, the European Greens and Alternattiva Demokratika said Malta had a responsibility to act and could not put more lives at risk.
However, they understood the immense pressure the country was facing and it could not be left alone.
They called on the EU to once again face up to its responsibility and show solidarity with Malta, Italy, Spain and Greece, which were facing similar situations.
They called for a solution that protected the lives of migrants and prevented a humanitarian crisis, while also helping Malta which was responsible for the disembarkation of migrants in its waters under international law.
Evelyne Huytebroek and Jean Lambert, co-chair and committee member of the European Green Party, said they regretted there was no will among governments for a European solution.
European solidarity was absolutely necessary in this situation and Europeans had a humanitarian responsibility to provide the migrants with food and the basic needs in the camps in Libya, and with the option to seek asylum or permission to migrate to Europe without being forced to risk their lives at sea.
They called on the Maltese authorities to stop demonising NGO vessels that were saving lives.
AD chairman Carmel Cacopardo said Malta was obliged to coordinate the rescue of anyone in danger. The country’s geographical position brought with it benefits but also responsibilities.
AD, he said, supported the government’s proposal to engage with Libya to lessen its humanitarian burden and enable the international community to provide much-needed assistance to both Libyans and refugees. However, it remained conscious of the difficulties given the current political state in Libya.
Academics join call for action
A total 472 academics also called for action saying member states should immediately open ports for safe disembarkation and assume shared responsibility for refugees and migrants saved at sea. Urgent action was required to avoid unnecessary loss of life.
They said they appreciated the particular challenges individual member states were facing during these challenging times but the situation “neither justifies nor excuses” the violation of human rights. The decision to close ports was unlawful and the absence of solidarity between the member states in meeting their collective moral and legal obligations was reprehensible.
Meanwhile, the Church in Malta has written to the Holy See asking for its help to negotiate a relocation plan among member states for a group of 47 other migrants who have been rescued by a Spanish NGO.
On Monday, a former fishing vessel operated by Spanish NGO Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario rescued a group of 47 migrants that had been stranded in Malta’s waters.
The boat has not been granted permission to disembark the migrants in Malta.
In its letter, the Church says that in view of “the huge pressures that Malta is currently facing, we are writing to ask you to use your good offices to intervene with other EU member states and ask them to support Malta by accepting to relocate all or some of the migrants on board”.