The merchant vessel Marina was heading to the international shipping hub at Malta Freeport when the Maltese government ordered it to undertake a rescue mission. The ship’s 13 crew members obeyed, and on May 3, they took in 78 migrants from Libya they found drifting off southern Italy near the island of Lampedusa in a wooden boat with a busted engine.
The Marina’s crew had insufficient food and water for such a large group. None of them had experience with migrant rescues. And when the boat neared Malta, border officials refused to let the passengers come ashore.
Many European nations have closed their borders because of the coronavirus pandemic, but migrants keep departing from Libya and crossing the Mediterranean Sea. They end up stranded between closed ports and a worsening conflict in Libya.
Italy allowed the migrants to disembark in Sicily after five days of wrangling with the Maltese government. In the meantime, the ship’s crew had to recycle air conditioning water to use for cleaning and flushing toilets. Sea Watch International, a Mediterranean rescue group, reported the Marina was running short of food and people had to sleep in the open.
In a similar case last month, at least 12 migrants died after nearly a week at sea in Maltese territory before a fishing vessel returned them to Libya.
Malta has seen a surge in migrant arrivals this year, recording 1,500 entries by early March, compared to 3,400 in all of 2019. On April 9, the Maltese government warned migrants planning to make the journey that it would no longer allow them to disembark, noting it had done so in recent years without tangible help from the European Union.
“It is in the interest and responsibility of such people not to endanger themselves on a risky voyage to a country which is not in a position to offer them a secure harbor,” the government announced.
Malta has instead held 57 migrants on a ship for about two weeks just outside its territorial waters. Last week, it chartered a second vessel to hold about 105 rescued refugees. Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela said the passengers will remain there until the EU can relocate them.
A day before Malta’s announcement, Italy also closed its ports to migrants, saying they could no longer be considered “places of safety” due to the pandemic. Simeon Leisch of Alarm Phone, an independent hotline for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, called the tactics a familiar method to pressure the EU to help.
Last week, United Nations human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville warned maritime centers not to ignore distress calls and not to coordinate efforts to return boats back to Libya.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants are stranded in detention centers and informal settlements in Libya, where fighting between the rival governments over territory in and around Tripoli has intensified in past weeks. The clashes have hindered the Libyan coast guard’s ability to intercept migrant boats before they head out.
Despite the pandemic, hundreds of migrants continue to arrive at the Niger-Libya border, said Safa Msehli, the communications officer with the International Organization for Migration.
Libya has 64 confirmed coronavirus cases, three deaths, and 28 recoveries. Msehli said officials have not reported any cases in Libyan detention centers, but concerns remain. Many of the facilities struggle with a lack of water, electricity, and hygiene products.
International and local aid partnerships have hosted disinfectant campaigns, conducted health screenings for coronavirus symptoms, and coordinated food delivery.
“It’s a very difficult environment to try and alleviate the suffering of the people while not having the authority or at least the support to end such a system,” Msehli said.