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Issue #1923      July 13, 2020

Refugees stuck in limbo as Italy and Malta ignore rescuers’ pleas for help

The Ocean Viking’s state of emergency goes unheard for two days before being allowed to enter Sicily, while a merchant ship carrying fifty-two refugees still waits for a port.

Italy and Malta refused to take responsibility for over 230 rescued refugees stuck onboard two ships in the Mediterranean this weekend.

A group of fifty-two people contacted the refugee-distress hotline operated by activist network Alarm Phone on Friday morning from within Malta’s search and rescue zone (SAR).

Alarm Phone made several attempts to contact the Maltese maritime rescue co-ordination centre (MRCC) but, it said, its calls were ignored and the authorities refused to take down crucial information about the boat in distress.

On Friday evening a Lebanese merchant vessel, the Talia, located and rescued the refugees with the guidance of German charity Sea Watch’s monitoring plane, Moonbird.

The Maltese MRCC initially told the Talia’s crew that an Armed Forces Malta vessel would pick up the rescued and take them to shore. Hours later, however, the MRCC ordered the ship to head to the Italian island of Lampedusa and await instructions there.

But Italy refused to allow the merchant vessel to enter its territorial waters and ordered it to sail back to Malta.

“The Talia should have been assigned a port of safety long ago,” Alarm Phone said in a tweet this afternoon.

“Instead the rescued are still at sea. Talia has complied with international law by rescuing people in distress in Malta’s SAR zone.

“Malta is evading its legal obligations by refusing disembarkation. Talia’s captain and crew have provided assistance to the rescued but their vessel was put in danger by Maltese authorities, who denied them shelter during a storm late at night.

“We demand a quick disembarkation in Malta, the closest safe port, to ensure the health and safety of the rescued as well as the crew.

“Maltese authorities should stop playing games with people’s lives and comply with international law without delays. Let them disembark now.”

The Talia remained in international waters between Malta and Lampedusa at the time this story was published.

Meanwhile the Ocean Viking rescue ship, which is carrying 180 refugees onboard, was finally given permission to dock in Italy after waiting days for the country to respond to its calls.

The ship declared a state of emergency on Saturday after a number of the rescued threatened to hurt themselves and others. Frederic Penard, director of operations for SOS Mediterranee, the charity that operates the Ocean Viking, said the crew had no choice but to issue the emergency.

“A large group of heavily traumatised survivors are in such psychological distress that they have become a danger to themselves and to others,” Mr Penard said.

“We have never had to resort to such an extreme measure of last resort in all our history.

“To date, more than 24 hours later, the only assistance proposed has been a visit by a medical doctor and a cultural mediator who spoke to the survivors but are not in a position to present a solution for their disembarkation.

“Is anyone in Europe hearing our call and taking it seriously? Human lives are at risk and we demand immediate action from all those supposedly good-willed states from whom we only hear words and see little action today.

“Do we have to wait for someone to die before being allowed to disembark?”

SOS Mediterranee has since announced that the ship had finally been given instructions to proceed to Sicily and that the 180 survivors would be disembarked there.

“The unnecessary delay of this disembarkation has put lives at risk, SOS Mediterranee said.

“Throughout the past days, the EU has kept silent. We have not seen any initiative to restart the Malta Agreement for relocating rescued people. There has been no sign of solidarity with coastal states.”

Morning Star

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