BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Authorities in the European island nation of Malta have disputed accusations made by a group of nongovernmental organizations a day earlier about a migrant boat in distress.
“After multiple verifications of the reported position by multiple searches, no boat has been sighted in the reported position,” the Armed Forces of Malta said in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
On Monday, four rescue groups operating in the central Mediterranean accused Maltese authorities of coordinating the return of around 500 people to eastern Libya where they were then imprisoned, in violation of international maritime law.
The group of migrants, including 55 children and pregnant women, were trying to reach Europe on May 23 aboard a rusty iron fishing boat when they reported to Alarm Phone – a helpline for migrants in distress – that they were adrift and taking on water, according to the NGO.
Communicating by satellite phone, the migrants repeatedly shared their GPS location with Alarm Phone, showing they were in international waters inside Malta’s search and rescue area of responsibility.
Alarm Phone says it has repeatedly transmitted its location and distress to the Maltese authorities, but has received no confirmation that a rescue operation has been launched. Humanitarian relief ships and an aircraft also searched for the ship to no avail. Alarm Phone lost contact with the migrants on the morning of May 24.
Two days later, Alarm Phone reports that relatives of the migrants reported that they had been returned to Benghazi, Libya, and imprisoned.
The International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency told The Associated Press that 485 people had been brought back to Benghazi by a ship belonging to the so-called Libyan National Army, a force in the east of the country led by military commander Khalifa Hifter.
IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli said the migrants were taken to Qanfouda detention center but could not confirm that it was the same group of people reported by Alarm Phone.
Both UN agencies have repeatedly condemned the return of migrants and refugees to Libya, saying the lawless nation should not be considered a safe place for disembarkation, as required by international maritime law.
In their emailed statement, the Maltese authorities added that they “have no jurisdiction over autonomous actions in international waters”.
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