A rescue coordination centre in Bremen was forced to coordinate a rescue in Malta's search and rescue area after no help was forthcoming from the Maltese authorities, the operators of a migrant rescue ship have said.
Sea-Eye said the incident developed over the weekend in rough seas south of Malta.
It said that on Friday evening, the NGO Alarm Phone reported a distress call in international waters north of Benghazi.
The container ship Berlin Express, operated by Hamburg-based shipping line Hapag-Lloyd was the first ship at the scene and found a small, overcrowded wooden boat with 34 people in the Maltese search and rescue zone.
"However, the Maltese rescue coordination centre repeatedly violated its coordination duties and referred to the responsibility of the flag state," the organisation claimed.
The Berlin Express sails under German flag and has its homeport in Hamburg.
When contacted about the migrants’ plea for help, an Armed Forces of Malta official on Saturday told Times of Malta: “We have no information on the matter so far”.
Due to the weather and height of the freeboard, the container ship was unable to rescue the people without further endangering their lives. The ship stood by, however, and its crew launched a life raft and provided the people seeking protection with food and drinking water. One crew member was injured in the process.
The German authorities contacted Sea-Eye's head of mission on Saturday morning to seek solutions to the difficult situation. The MV Sea Eye 4 was east of Tripoli, some 40 hours away from the case at the time, but it was asked to provide assistance to the Berlin Express.
Several cargo vessels reached the Berlin Express before the Sea Eye 4, including the BSG Bahamas, which is managed by the Hamburg-based CPO Containerschiffreederei GmbH & Co. KG.
On Sunday at noon, the crew of the BSG Bahamas finally succeeded in transferring the 34 people to their ship. At this point, the people had already been at sea for four nights. All appeared well except two suffering seasickness.
"We thank our captain and his crew for their excellent seamanship, a prerequisite for the successful execution of such a rescue operation,” said Ortwin Mühr, spokesman for CPO Containerschiffreederei GmbH in Hamburg.
The Berlin Express was then able to continue its voyage. “Our captain and his crew did an outstanding job and there was no question from the first minute that we would help the people in distress as best we could,” said Silke Muschitz, head of fleet management at Hapag-Lloyd.
“We would like to express our sincere thanks for the good support we received from Sea-Eye. Our captains were in constant exchange and the situation showed us once again how important good cooperation is when rescuing people in distress at sea,” Muschitz added.
Late on Sunday afternoon, the Sea Eye 4 reached the Bahamas and the migrants were transferred to it in view of its on-board provisions, sleeping quarters and medical facilities.
“Without the crews of the Berlin Express and the Bahamas, the people would have had no chance to survive. They would have died of thirst or drowned,” said Gorden Isler, chairman of Sea-Eye. V.
“It should not have come that far. The distress case finally occurred in the Maltese search and rescue zone. Once again, Malta refused responsibility and coordination, so the German rescue coordination centre in Bremen was forced to coordinate a distress call in the Mediterranean,” Sea Eye said.