ROME – A day before Pope Francis departed for a quick trip to Malta during which migration is expected to be a key theme, the small Mediterranean island refused to disembark over 100 migrants, prompting NGOs to appeal for a papal intervention.
Since the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has been a tireless advocate for migrants and refugees and has often appealed for European countries to do their part in welcoming and supporting those who cross their borders.
Both Italy and Malta for years have been at the forefront of the migration crisis, receiving the bulk of migrants from Africa. Most depart from Libya in flimsy dinghies, and seek to enter Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.
The many deaths that occur along the way due to precarious weather conditions and poor equipment have prompted Pope Francis to call the Mediterranean a “great cemetery,” and he has often criticized the so-called “pushback” of ships carrying migrants from countries along the coast.
Malta specifically has been repeatedly accused by humanitarian organizations of turning a blind eye to migrants rescued off its shores, and Malta has also been accused of returning migrants to Europe, a claim rejected by authorities.
It is perhaps with a touch of irony, then, that as Pope Francis is arriving for his April 2-3 visit to Malta, the migrant issue, which is expected to loom large throughout the trip, is front and center as a ship carrying over 100 migrants is attempting to disembark, while Malta’s government is refusing the request.
German rescue ship Sea-Eye 4 apparently received a distress call Wednesday afternoon and, after several hours of sailing, found a grey rubber boat with 74 people aboard, including 22 children. Once in safety, 15 of the passengers had to be treated at the ship’s sick bay.
The migrants pulled from the dinghy came from Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, and Syria.
A day prior, Sea-Eye 4 had taken on 32 other migrants from a container ship called Karina, which had rescued the migrants from a small fishing boat caught in 12-foot waves.
Sea-Eye 4, now carrying 106 migrants, was outside of Malta’s territorial waters when it made contact with Maltese authorities to ask for the disembarkation of the migrants, however, according to various Maltese media outlets, the ship was informed that Malta was not responsible for the operation, since the rescues took place outside of its search and rescue region, and so the ship would not be allowed to dock.
Gorden Isler, chairman of Sea-Eye, said in a post on the NGO’s website that “If the people hadn’t been rescued, it would have been very unlikely that they would have survived, because the weather has changed suddenly in the last few days.”
Isler said another emergency call was reported to them by Alarm Phone, prompting an all-night search for 90 people in distress on another dinghy, also on Wednesday, however the search was unsuccessful and had to be interrupted Thursday morning when the coordinates of another boat carrying 145 people in distress were reported.
However, before Sea-Eye could reach the boat carrying 145 people, Alarm Phone said it had received word of an illegal pushback of the vessel by the Libyan Coast Guard.
According to Isler, there is no further information on the boat carrying 90 people, but believes a pushback is also likely in this case.
“With the renewal of the IRINI mandate, the federal government declared that the Libyan coast guard could no longer be supported and trained, but here in the Libyan rescue zone we will continue to be eyewitnesses to returns that violate international law,” Isler said.
Referring to the boat with 90 people on board and the possibility of a pushback, Isler said this is “a shipwreck that nobody will ever talk about again, because it’s obviously become normality for us in Europe that black people fleeing to suffer such a fate is unfortunately also a possibility.”
The 32 people rescued from the Karina ship apparently had “little chance of survival” without the rescue, but their fate, and those of all 106 migrants now on board still hangs in the balance as Sea-Eye continues seeking a point of disembarkation.
Noting that Pope Francis was due to arrive in Malta Saturday morning, and that he is scheduled to visit a prominent Catholic migrant center as part of the visit, Isler issued an appeal for his intervention, saying, “Perhaps an unequivocal appeal by the pope to the Maltese government can make Malta, as the closest EU state, feel responsible for 106 people seeking protection.”
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