Wednesday

29th Sep 2021

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Malta refuses to help rescue involving disabled children

  • Numerous children were saved, including two who are disabled (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The children came first. One by one they were handed onto the Ocean Viking search and rescue boat.

Among them, a small, frail and dehydrated crippled boy. His wheelchair was still in the wooden boat, along with some of the adults.

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  • The wooden boat had been at sea for two days (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

They had spent two days at sea after leaving from Zuwara, a port city in Libya. They had also just made a narrow escape from the Libyan Coast Guard.

The Libyans had intercepted them around 10 nautical miles inside Malta's search-and-rescue zone.

For reasons not immediately clear, they then let them go.

The day before, the Libyans had fired shots near another boat in distress, also in Malta's search-and-rescue zone.

Back on the water, the rescue speed boat returned to pick up the other survivors, the wheelchair, and some bags. One of them, a woman in a blue hat, broke down as the speed boat returned to the Ocean Viking.

The Libyans then moved in and lit the eight metre wooden vessel on fire.

Thirty people had been saved, including five adult women and 15 children. All but the one Egyptian in the group are Libyan.

The chase and confusion in the lead up to the rescue is revealing of a system weighed against civilian rescue operations.

Malta refuses to cooperate

In the hour preceding the rescue, the Maltese authorities appeared to ignore repeated requests to help.

On the bridge, SOS Mediterranee's rescue coordinator Luisa Albera had made multiple telephone calls to Malta.

She had also sent emails that went unanswered.

"Who is coordinating the case? It is your search-and-rescue region?" she had said over the phone to Malta.

"I already sent three emails, no answer, and now the Libyan coast guard is back," she had told them.

"Did I speak with you before? Because we are in the Maltese search and rescue region and we have visual in a distress case," she said to the Maltese, in another call.

"Can you inform me about the situation please? Can someone tell me what is going on?," she said, in yet another call.

The Libyans had almost appeared out of nowhere and at full speed on Ocean Viking's port side.

A radio dispatch from Seabird, a small propeller plane, told them to leave.

"You are in the Maltese search-and-rescue region, you have no authority here," they said.

But the Libyans pressed on, responding that they had an obligation to rescue.

They then told the Ocean Viking to change its course, who refused.

Albera called the Maltese again.

"If you could give instruction as soon as possible. It is in your area," she said on the phone.

The Libyans changed course, appearing to back off, only to then come speeding back to intercept the boat.

"I have 1.7 nautical miles to the target. The Libyan Coast Guard is going for interception," said the officer on the bridge.

But after the interception, it suddenly became clear the Libyans were letting them go.

The reasons are unknown. Perhaps, it was because they were mostly Libyan. Or perhaps it was pressure from the Maltese authorities.

But onboard the Ocean Viking, one of those rescued gave another reason.

He said they threatened to jump in the water, should the Libyans force them to board.

Moments later, another alert and another rescue was launched.

Altogether, 44 people had been saved.

Author bio

Nikolaj Nielsen, an EUobserver journalist, is embedded on the Ocean Viking for the coming weeks, reporting exclusively from the boat on the Mediterranean migration route.

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