Tuesday

29th Nov 2022

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.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Adrift at sea: an empty wooden boat

After leaving the French port of Marseille on Sunday, the Ocean Viking on Thursday morning spots an empty wooden boat at sea, an eerie prospect of what lies ahead as it plots a course south towards international waters off Libya.

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Migrant rescues: 'You can't save everyone'

Somewhere east of Sardinia in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Ocean Viking crew ran drills on their two primary rescue speed boats. The teams are preparing for the real rescues, which may take place before the end of the week.

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Empirical evidence shows rescue operations at sea are not a pull-factor. But that suspicion has underpinned a campaign to criminalise NGO actions. Eight legal cases were launched this year alone, bringing the total caseload to 58.

Transparency lawsuit filed against Frontex

German sea rescue organisation Sea-Watch is suing Frontex for refusing to disclose some 73 documents on its possible role in helping the Libyan coast guard intercept migrants in Malta's rescue zone.

EU makes bogus claims on Libya coast guard safety

The European Commission continues to claim its actions supporting the Libyan coast guard are designed to save lives at sea. But those intercepted are often sent to detention centres where they face torture, rape and murder.

Libya to get new EU-funded boats despite crimes

The EU Commission is to deliver three new 'P150' patrol boats to the Libyan coast guard, despite a recent UN report citing possible crimes against humanity at Libyan detention centres.

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As MEPs debate the situation in Libya in the plenary for the first time in four years, the International Rescue Committee's Libya director says the EU must act now to prevent the country spiralling further into chaos.

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