Italian and Maltese authorities have been accused of leaving people to die at sea after at least 30 migrants drowned when their boat capsized off Libya on Sunday.
"Their politics of non-assistance and the delegation of their duties to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard led to the death of 30 people who were on a boat in distress in international waters, in the contested Libyan Search-and-Rescue (SAR) region," international NGOs Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea-Watch said.
"The 30 people who died could still be alive, if only the Italian and Maltese authorities had decided to immediately coordinate a proper rescue operation."
The NGOs said the Italian and Maltese authorities were informed about the boat at 2.30am on Saturday but it was only early on Sunday that a merchant ship attempted a rescue in rough seas. The boat capsized and 17 were injured.
Two of the injured migrants were initially meant to be brought to Malta but the ship that rescued them proceeded to Italy.
"These deaths are not the result of an accident. They are the consequence of deliberate political choices. Italian and Maltese authorities could have intervened immediately. Instead, they chose to wait for too long and referred to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard as the responsible and ‘competent’ authority, thereby wasting the time that was needed to save all of the distressed," the NGOs said.
The oil tanker Amex Avenue, and some time later the merchant vessel Gamma Star were in the vicinity of the boat but sailed by. Several hours later, another merchant vessel, the Basilis S headed towards the position of the boat in danger but waited for a better-equipped vessel for a rescue operation.
According to the NGOs, the Italian and Maltese authorities decided to wait, in vain, for the so-called Libyan Coast Guard to launch its patrol boats, in order to illegally pull all people back to Libya instead of rescuing them to a European port.
"Despite the extremely challenging maritime conditions and the desperate state of the stranded boat, neither the Italian, nor the Maltese or the Libyan authorities activated their resources for a rescue operation for over 30 hours after the first alert by Alarm Phone."
The NGOs said the location of the boat was in international waters, outside of Libyan territorial waters.
The boat in distress was within the area of operations of the European mission Irni and the Italian ‘Mare Sicuro’ mission, with both Italian and European military assets continuously present. Yet, none of these assets replied to the call for help. Nor were they engaged in the rescue operation by the Italian or Maltese authorities. The Italian authorities delegated the rescue to merchant vessels that were not equipped for rescue operations.
The NGOs said they were calling Italy and Malta, as well as the European Union in general, to end their border externalisation policies and the delegation of duties to Libya.
"The Italian and Maltese authorities must cease to refer distress cases to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which has an appalling human rights record and has forcefully returned over 100,000 people to inhumane conditions in Libya."
Moreover, the contested Libyan Search and Rescue region cannot be viewed as under the exclusive responsibility of Libyan authorities. Moreover, the Italian and Maltese authorities also have to end their reliance on merchant vessels alone to fulfil their duty to rescue" the NGOs added.
On Monday, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, speaking in parliament, demanded tougher European action to stop people smugglers, saying that
"The keys for entry to Europe must not be in the hands of the people traffickers."