Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) patrol vessel intercepted a dinghy overloaded with migrants and turned them away at gunpoint from their waters, after giving fuel and the GPS coordinates to reach Italy, survivors said in a media interview.
Exclusive footage is said to show an AFM vessel refusing to rescue a small rubber boat carrying 101 asylum seekers reportedly in Maltese territorial waters and instead providing them with the equipment to continue their journey to Italy.
“They came to us and said, ‘Malta has a virus called corona if you’ve heard about it. We can’t take you there because everyone is sick in Malta. And Malta is small and can’t take all of you’,” one of the passengers who eventually made it to Pozzallo, in Sicily, on 12 April, told the Guardian.
“They gave us red life vests, a new engine and fuel and told us they would show us the route to Italy. Then they pointed guns at us and said: ‘We give you 30 minutes’.”
Footage of the incident, initially sent to Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants in distress, is destined to spark a row between Italy and Malta.
In early April, both countries declared their seaports “unsafe” due to the pandemic, closing their borders to migrant landings. As a result, boats carrying asylum seekers were left adrift in European search and rescue (SAR) zones. An unknown number died at sea of starvation, dehydration or drowning.
A report that Alarm Phone shared with the Guardian states: “Over recent months, and especially in April 2020, Alarm Phone has documented how the Maltese authorities have orchestrated push-backs from within the Maltese SAR zone, sabotaged migrant boats, failed to render assistance and to bring people to safety, and left migrants to die off the Maltese coast while organising their forced return to Libya by private vessels.”
When the flimsy and overloaded dinghy carrying the 101 migrants reached Pozzallo, there was amazement that such a small vessel with so many people aboard could make the 500km trip to Italy from Libya.
The group had set off from Zliten, east of Tripoli, on the evening of April 08. After three days, on the morning of April 11, they saw Malta.
The migrants said they were intercepted by the AFM vessel. “They gave us life vests and around 20 or 25 people jumped into the water and almost drowned,” said another survivor. “So [the Maltese boat]started turning around so we wouldn’t swim to the city. They were likely to kill us. They made waves. They gave us ropes and told us to hold on to the ropes and tie them to our boat and go back.”
According to the witnesses, a second AFM vessel arrived at the scene and an officer informed the dinghy passengers that Malta was infected by the virus and unable to accept more people.
“Then one of the Maltese officials said, ‘Ok we made a decision, we won’t return you to Libya’,” said another survivor. “He said, ‘We will show you the route to Italy’.” We said, ‘No, we don’t have fuel’. They said, ‘Ok we will give you fuel’. They gave us five gallons, 20 litres.”
“We kept moving until the next day, and around 10am we arrived in Italy,” said one of the asylum seekers.
When contacted by the Guardian, AFM and Malta’s government did not respond to requests for comment. (Source: The Guardian)