A group of 119 migrants at sea since Wednesday have been rescued by an NGO vessel and are now safe – but exhausted – in Sicily. One person, however, had drowned after falling from the dinghy.

The plight of the migrants had been raised by Italy's new Home Affairs Minister Matteo Salvini, who warned that the country will be adopting a far tougher stance towards Malta on migration issues than it did in the past.

He claimed that the NGO vessel with migrants was barred from landing on the island, something that the Maltese government denied in a terse statement shortly afterwards.

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The migrants had been saved from a rubbed dinghy by the NGO Sea Eye’s vessel the Seefuchs. An earlier attempt to transfer them to another vessel, the Sea-Watch 3, failed as the water was very rough. The boat eventually declared an emergency.

The NGO's version of what happened afterwards tied in with the one given by the Maltese authorities, saying that the Rescue Centre had offered the vessel, the Seefuchs, refuge.

However, the vessel’s captain, Klaus Stadler, was at that time in the wind and wave shadow of two ships – one of them a tanker. He was reluctant to abandon the protection offered by the ships and was moving further away from Malta. Eventually, Malta was declared as no longer being the nearest safe haven, a spokesman for the NGO Sea Eye told the Times of Malta.

The vessel eventually moved into the area monitored by the Italian rescue coordination centre, which directed them to Pozzallo.

“The 119 migrants – which include 11 women, two of them pregnant - are doing well in accordance with the requirements. They are exhausted, they are cold, they are seasick and they are soaked, but they are still alive,” he said.

In total the sea rescue organisation from Regensburg was able to take part in saving more than 14,000 people in the past two years. The boats though, are 60-year-old fishing vessels and have never been suited to transport many people.

“Being forced into transporting people puts the crew and everyone else aboard into enormous danger. Nevertheless, it is the third time in a few weeks that Seefuchs has people on deck for more than 24 hours – this time with the most challenging whether conditions so far,” he said, lamenting that the intensity of defamation and vilification has grown again.