A passenger on a rubber boat adrift in the Mediterranean Sea called a rescue hotline on June 23 to plead for help. The boat – carrying 14 migrants from the Middle East and Africa – was out of fuel in choppy waters. And a male passenger had just drowned.
The craft was about 70 nautical miles off the coast of Malta, within the small island country’s search and rescue zone, according to position data recorded by Alarm Phone, the hotline operator. Within these zones, countries are obligated under international law to coordinate search and rescue operations.
Still, Maltese authorities declined that distress call and at least 32 other communications about the situation, according to interviews with humanitarian groups involved in the rescue and a Reuters review of the groups’ notes, e-mails and recordings documenting the incident.
At one point, a person who answered the phone at Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre rebuffed a call from a humanitarian worker regarding the boat. “You’re keeping my line busy,” the responder said, and hung up, according to a recording of the call provided to Reuters by Sea-Watch, a German non-profit search-and-rescue group, one of several that notified authorities about the distressed vessel.
A Maltese military boat did eventually reach the distressed vessel but refused the passengers’ direct pleas for rescue, survivors told interviewers from the medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). An MSF boat, the Geo Barents, later rescued the passengers, a Reuters review of MSF photos and video of the operation shows, and took them to Italy.
The incident is a recent example of Malta’s practice of declining to rescue vessels carrying migrants bound for Europe, according to humanitarian groups and non-governmental organisations operating in the region. The case was particularly troubling, international law experts say, because of the Maltese armed forces’ alleged refusal to aid the passengers.
Details of the incident, described to Reuters by humanitarian groups MSF, Sea-Watch and Alarm Phone, haven’t previously been reported.
By not responding promptly to distress calls and coordinating a rescue, Malta fell short of its duties under international law, said Ainhoa Campàs Velasco, a lecturer in maritime law at the University of Southampton. “The type of boat, the sea conditions, they are overcrowded – this is a clear situation of distress.”
Maltese authorities, including a spokesperson in the prime minister’s office, declined to answer questions about the incident. A spokesperson for Malta’s armed forces, which coordinates search and rescue efforts, said all reports of “irregular migrants” in Malta’s search and rescue zone “are followed up immediately.”
“Search and Rescue operations are coordinated in accordance with the applicable international conventions, regulations and through the competent authority,” spokesperson Sabrina Borg wrote in an email to Reuters. “As with all cases, the competent authorities exercise the duty of care.”
An Italian politician in April accused Malta of failing to rescue boats in distress within the country’s search and rescue zone. Maltese authorities “consistently pretend not to see and never intervene,” leading to more pressure on the Italian coast guard, Tommaso Foti, a member of the ruling Brothers of Italy party, told an Italian radio programme. Foti did not respond to a request for comment.
Humanitarian groups involved in Mediterranean rescues echoed that criticism. “From our experience, it’s highly unlikely that Malta will rescue,” said Oliver Kulikowski, spokesperson for Sea-Watch, which helped in the ultimate rescue of the boat in June. “Malta is trying everything to avoid having responsibility and having people arriving in Malta.”
A home affairs ministry spokesperson said Malta wants a fair and safe immigration and asylum system, in which people “genuinely in need of international protection are swiftly recognized” and those who lack a legal right to remain in Malta are returned to their countries of origin. Malta will continue working to reduce illegal crossings that result in thousands of deaths at sea, said the spokesperson, Neil Azzopardi Ferriggi.
“It is not acceptable that thousands of people continue risking their lives, trying to reach the EU, while smugglers continue profiting from the hopes and misery of migrants,” he said.
Thirty-nine hours after the first distress call, MSF rescued the three teenagers, two women and eight men who remained on the boat. The aid group collected testimonies from three survivors and shared them with Reuters. The news agency wasn’t able to independently interview the survivors or confirm the full details of their accounts. Their whereabouts are unknown.
The rubber boat left Sirte, Libya, around 3 a.m. on June 21, two survivors told MSF. On board were 14 people from Syria and South Sudan, including two women and three teenagers between 14 and 17 years old.
At 4:28 p.m. on June 22, after a day and a half at sea, someone aboard made a distress call to Alarm Phone, a network that relays distress calls from the Mediterranean to emergency services. Alarm Phone alerted Maltese and Italian authorities by email of the boat’s location, noting that it was out of fuel, according to a copy of the email provided to Reuters.
“The people on the boat are urgently asking for help,” the email said.
In the following hours, Alarm Phone updated Maltese and Italian authorities by email about the boat’s situation and called the Malta Search and Rescue Coordination Centre at least four times, according to Alarm Phone notes. None of the contacts elicited a response.
By the next morning, June 23, survivors told MSF, they had run out of food and water. They tied empty fuel containers to the sides of the boat to use as floatation devices in case they capsized.
Around 12:30 p.m., one of the empty fuel containers fell into the water and a 23-year-old Syrian man jumped in to retrieve it. The jug was only a metre away from the boat, but the waves were strong, and he was not wearing a life jacket, a 27-year-old man who witnessed the incident told MSF. Passengers told MSF they tried, to no avail, to move the boat closer to the Syrian man as he struggled to stay above water.
At 12:46 p.m., Alarm Phone called the Malta Search and Rescue Coordination Centre to report that one person was in the water. The boat was 74 nautical miles southeast of Malta, position data show, and within the country’s search and rescue zone.
The person answering the phone at the Search and Rescue Coordination Centre hung up immediately, according to Alarm Phone’s notes from the call.
The Syrian man eventually disappeared beneath the waves, survivors told MSF.
An hour later, a plane operated by Sea-Watch spotted the drifting boat. Only a few people wore life jackets, according to a copy of an email Sea-Watch sent to Maltese authorities. The closest vessel was a Maltese patrol boat, 15 nautical miles away, travelling toward Malta, according to position data and videos recorded by Sea-Watch staff and analysed by Reuters.
Sea-Watch radioed the Maltese boat, patrol vessel P51 of the Armed Forces of Malta, three times and got no response, Sea-Watch staff said. The Armed Forces of Malta runs the country’s Search and Rescue Coordination Centre, which is responsible for coordinating and directing rescues within Malta’s zone.
Sea-Watch also issued a May Day call, summoning any nearby ship to help the drifting vessel. No Maltese authority or patrol boat responded, Sea-Watch staff said.
“It’s like calling 911, and the emergency hotline is not responding,” said Kulikowski, the Sea-Watch spokesperson.
An oil tanker, the Laconia flagged to Gabon, did respond to the May Day call and altered course to pull up alongside the boat for more than two hours, according to ship tracking data. It left around 9:20 p.m. after a speed boat whose crew identified themselves as Maltese armed forces told the captain to hand over monitoring of the craft to them, according to a recording of a conversation between the tanker captain and Sea-Watch staff. The tanker’s captain and owners did not respond to a request for comment. Malta’s armed forces declined to comment on the tanker’s involvement.
Official counts of Mediterranean distress calls and sea rescues are not available. But Malta’s intake of migrants arriving by sea has declined sharply in recent years as arrivals soared elsewhere in Europe.
More than 152,000 people arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2022, up 49% since 2019, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Italy recorded an 814% increase in sea arrivals over those years, from 11,500 to 105,131. Malta’s arrivals plunged 87%, from 3,406 to 444.
A 2020 report by Amnesty International accused Malta of delaying or denying rescues. Some of these incidents, according to the report, involved vessels that had already reached the Maltese search and rescue zone before being “pushed back” to Libya. The report cited migrant testimony, NGOs, government sources and press reports.
Malta has denied engaging in pushbacks, which the European Court of Human Rights has declared illegal under international law.
The tiny nation, with just over 500,000 people, cannot handle a huge influx of migrants as easily as wealthier nations such as Italy, which has more than 100 times its population, Malta’s leaders say. Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri took a hard line on undocumented migrants at an Oct. 7 meeting with other European Union officials. Camilleri said that 70% of migrants who landed in Malta had been returned and that it was important “to send a clear message they have no right to stay.”
Critics say this stance drives Malta’s search and rescue response. “What they’re interested in is closing the border and people not arriving rather than meeting their search and rescue obligations,” said Jean-Pierre Gauci, a Maltese scholar in migration law at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.
A Maltese patrol boat arrived at the drifting vessel after sunset on June 23, more than 10 hours after the young man had drowned, survivors told MSF. Three men in white hazmat suits gave the passengers energy biscuits, a flashlight and three gallons of fuel and urged them to continue to Italy. The boat was more than 78 nautical miles from Italy at the time, position data show.
The passengers told the men they were scared and didn’t want to remain on the boat, survivors told MSF.
Within a few hours, the rubber boat again ran out of fuel. The Maltese patrol boat came back and gave the passengers three more containers of fuel, survivors told MSF.
An MSF ship arrived in the region late at night on June 23, and its crew notified Maltese authorities that they could rescue the passengers. After waiting a few hours and getting no response, MSF picked up the 13 survivors and took them to La Spezia, Italy. MSF staff doesn’t know what happened to the passengers after that because the organisation does not track migrants after they leave the rescue ship.
MSF gave Reuters a copy of a drawing one of the survivors created en route. It depicts a man overboard with his arms raised high in the air. In the bottom corner, the artist wrote in Arabic: “May God rest his soul.”