Boat carrying 400 migrants adrift between Italy and Malta

People onboard say the boat has been adrift for two days as it has taken on water and is without a captain.

FILE - A group thought to be migrants from Tunisia on board a precarious wooden boat waits to be assisted by a team of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, around 20 miles southwest from the Italian island of Lampedus
Since 2014, more than 26,000 migrants and refugees have drowned or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean [File: Santi Palacios/AP]

A vessel with around 400 migrants and refugees onboard is adrift between Italy and Malta as it awaits rescue from Italian coastguard, according to sea rescue support service Alarm Phone.

People onboard the vessel told Alarm Phone in a distress call on Sunday that the boat had been adrift for two days as it had taken on water and was without a captain, the organisation said.

“The boat has now reached the search and rescue area (SAR) between Italy and Malta, and Italian coastguard have informed us that they are sending a military ship to rescue the people onboard,” Britta Rabe, a spokesperson for Alarm Phone, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

“A merchant ship approached the boat and refuelled it but was asked by Maltese authorities not to conduct a rescue.”

The vessel departed Tobruk in eastern Libya on Wednesday with around 400 people, including pregnant women and children, onboard.

“People are upset and crying for help because there is water inside their boat now,” Rabe said, adding that Italian coastguard workers have confirmed their SAR vessel Dicotti has left Sicily and is on its way to conduct the rescue.

Earlier, search and rescue service Sea-Watch International said it had located the boat with one of its planes.

“We found a boat with ⁓400 people in distress. Nearby: 2 merchant ships that are ordered not to rescue, instead one was asked by Malta to only supply the boat with fuel. 400 people are in imminent danger of death. The EU must act immediately!” it said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Alarm Phone said it had alerted authorities in Greece, Malta and Italy when it first received the distress call, but Italian authorities activated a search and rescue operation “only once the boat reached their SAR region” despite being aware of the case since the initial alert call.

“About 400 people have been left at sea in a potentially fatal situation they have been [in] for five days. These cases of non-assistance are systematic and too often provoke a loss of lives to which the authorities are accountable,” the rescue support service said.

The Central Mediterranean route is described by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as the most dangerous migration route in the world – one in six people who departs the shores of North Africa dies.

Since 2014, more than 26,000 migrants and refugees have drowned or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. The figure stands at 503 people this year.

Libya acts as a major gateway for African migrants hoping to reach Europe. They arrive in Libya fleeing poverty, conflict, war, forced labour, female genital mutilation, corrupt governments and personal threats among other reasons.

Last month, more than 1,000 people were brought to safety at two Italian ports after the overcrowded boats they were on encountered problems in the Mediterranean. Two weeks prior to that, at least 76 people died in a shipwreck.

The European Union has reportedly spent more than 90 million euros ($100m) in funding and training the Libyan coastguard to stop the crossings.

Source: Al Jazeera