Malta is being investigated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for asking the Libyan coastguard for help in saving a migrant boat in an area that falls under Malta’s responsibility. 

The alleged incident took place on October 18 and is potentially a violation of maritime law. 

“We are looking into the reasons of Malta's request,” said the UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel from Rome. “…including that Malta may have asked Libya to intervene for technical reasons.”

"The problem is that the migrants were disembarked in Libya. That's certainly a violation of maritime laws. It's clear that Libya isn't a safe port."

"Lack of Communication"

The incident was first highlighted by Alarm Phone, a volunteer group that helps those in trouble at sea find the nearest coastguard. 

It says it received a call in the early afternoon of October 18 as well as a GPS position from a person on a boat carrying 50 migrants, including 10 women and five children. 

Alarm Phone says it informed Malta about the case as it was in the country's search and rescue region and - according to a transcript of the call - was told by the Maltese officer on duty that “we will take care of everything”.

When Alarm Phone tried to follow up on the rescue, it says Malta’s search and rescue facility stopped answering its calls and seven hours later Alarm Phone was told that the boat had been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, around 41 nautical miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa and 110 nautical miles from Tripoli.

Speaking from Germany, founder of Alarm Phone Hagen Kopp said: “This is not the first time that Malta has delayed its operation after receiving information about migrants in distress. Sometimes we’ve had people waiting for up to 17 hours before they are rescued. In the past few weeks, I know of four cases myself where this has occurred. We are now in the process of contacting other organisations such as UNHCR and compiling a file to put pressure on the Maltese government to react to distress calls quicker.”

“Our main reason for anger, is the lack of communication. The Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) will not talk to us or give us information or confirm they are taking over responsibility of the situation. So, for this reason we feel we need to scandalise it. When we try and reach AFM or the government by phone or email, they ignore us and will not respond. They also give us a lot of push back when it comes to the definition of what a boat full of people in distress actually means."

"Often, they will tell us that the boat is still moving, and people are alive onboard, so there is no need for a rescue. But Malta is not even complying with its own agreement and promises to the European Union by taking care of its own waters. Sending people back to Libya and to the hell of detention camps is a strong violation of human rights.” 

“What is also frustrating is that, if the Maltese worked with us, people in need would be processed quicker and then relocated out of Malta. We are not suggesting that all people who land in Malta, should be taken care of by the Maltese government. But logistically it is in a position where this will condition to happen, so if we can create a strong, quick relocation process and move people out quickly it will be easier. And that comes from good communication from all sides, which is not happening now.”

A spokesperson from the AFM said it had “no comment” when approached by the Times of Malta, while the Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security failed to return phonecalls. 

UNHCR's Mr Cochetel said it was not the first time Malta was accused of delegating a rescue to the Libyan coastguard and said this is not necessarily a new level of deflecting migrant rescues. 

He did confirm that there have been allegations in the past, but added there is “no evidence for now that this is becoming a common practice."