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.
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“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.”
During the night, we were able to reconnect with the ~400 people. They managed to continue the journey and have reached the shared SAR zone of #Malta and #Italy. They report high waves and strong wind. Still, no rescue is in sight!
Don't abandon them at sea, rescue now!
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) April 10, 2023
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.
A merchant vessel has supplied fuel & water to the boat with ⁓400 people on it but has not rescued it following orders from Malta.
Currently, the boat is struggling with 1.5m waves, a huge danger.
The EU must take its responsibility & rescue the people immediately! pic.twitter.com/toj7JfynNw
— Sea-Watch International (@seawatch_intl) April 10, 2023
“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.