Rescue NGOs have claimed that the Maltese authorities have illegally pushed back to Libya 500 people who last week were at risk of drowning.
In a statement, Alarm Phone, Sea-Watch, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Energency said relatives of the migrants are claiming the "abducted" asylum seekers were taken to a Benghazi prison.
Emergency hotline Alarm Phone first flagged the boat in distress with the Maltese and Italian authorities on Tuesday, when it was called by a group of people aboard the vessel, claiming they had fled from Libya.
Fifty five children and 45 women were among the 500 people from Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan aboard the boat, Alarm Phone said. The migrants reported the engine of their boat had stopped working 30 nautical miles within the Maltese search and rescue zone.
Alarm Phone says the situation worsened throughout the day, with the boat taking in water and "several merchant vessels" passing by and not intervening.
The last time Alarm Phone spoke to the group was on Wednesday morning, when they said they were still adrift.
Eventually Sea-Watch's aircraft Seabird 2, arrived at the last known position and searched for the boat in distress, as did the life support vessel of the NGO Emergency and other boats of the civil fleet.
Times of Malta has not been able to speak to anyone who has seen the boat in distress or the relatives claiming the migrants are being detained in Benghazi.
Questions sent to the Armed Forces of Malta and the Home Affairs Ministry on Wednesday remained unanswered.
Times of Malta also sought a reaction to the pushback claims from the AFM and the ministry on Monday morning.
On Thursday, the Italian Coast Guard said a total of 423 migrants had been rescued from a fishing boat off the coast of Sicily. A separate group of 671 migrants were rescued in the night between Wednesday and Thursday.
But rescue NGOs told Times of Malta the 500 missing people were not among these groups.
In a statement on Monday, the rescue NGOs said they had repeatedly reached out to the Italian and Maltese authorities requesting information regarding the fate of the missing boat.
"Fears that the 500 people may have been intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya began to grow.
"These fears were confirmed on Friday morning: the 500 people had not been rescued. Instead, they had been towed back - over 330km - to the Libyan port of Benghazi - an illegal pushback coordinated by RCC Malta. According to relatives, the 500 people were brought to a prison in Benghazi," the statement said.
"Instead of bringing people - who tried to escape extreme violence in Libya - to a place of safety, an authority of a European member state - namely RCC Malta - decided to organise a mass pushback by proxy at sea, forcing 500 people across 330km into a Libyan prison.
"Given that Malta's systematic non-assistance within the Maltese SAR zone has been long established, the Italian authorities should have mobilised rescue efforts in order to protect 500 lives and guarantee their disembarkation at a place of safety."
Over the past years, there have been several claims of Malta’s failure to assist migrants at risk, with the island being involved in a controversial operation in 2020 to return people to war-torn Libya.
Last month, Times of Malta reported that for over a year, the authorities have been refusing to say how many people were rescued in Maltese search-and-rescue waters, and how many were brought ashore, taken to Libya or Italy, citing national security reasons while dismissing a Times of Malta request as “curiosity”.
What are the rescue NGOs asking?
- Why did Malta fail to coordinate the rescue of this boat and instead organised a pushback by proxy?
- Why did RCC Malta fail to order any of the several merchant vessels in the vicinity to assist the boat in distress?
- Why did the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre fail to send out adequate rescue assets in order to assist the boat in distress?
- The airplane Seagull of European EUNAVFOR MED Operation Irini was flying in the area of the last known position of the boat in distress at the same time when contact with the migrants was lost. The EUNAVFOR MED Operation Irini Warship FGS Bonn was only 100km away from the boat in distress. Why didn't they rescue the people in distress?
- What is the identity of the Libyan fishing boat and its crew that carried out the pushback?