‘I hope it doesn’t happen when we have 400 migrants’

Rescue boat captain cautions against repeat of 2011 migrant tragedy

Mr Gatti with the rescue boat in Valletta yesterday. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Mr Gatti with the rescue boat in Valletta yesterday. Photo: Jonathan Borg

The head of mission on board the rescue vessel left stranded in the open sea in the midst of a diplomatic standoff between Malta and Italy fears it could happen again when the boat is teeming with migrants.

“We only had three on board, and they were all healthy. But what happens when the boat is full? When there are sanitary and health concerns? When it becomes a real humanitarian situation?” Ricardo Gatti told The Sunday Times of Malta yesterday.

He and his crew spent two days floating in international waters between Malta and Italy after both governments refused to allow the ship entry into their ports. 

Operated by Barcelona-based NGO Proactiva Open Arms, the ship was carrying three migrants rescued some 100 kilometres off the Libyan coast. 

The boat was eventually allowed to enter Italy after it started experiencing engine trouble, with the authorities there eventually accepting taking charge of the three migrants.

“This was a diplomatic issue, that much was clear. It reminded me of what happened in 2011 when people let these matters come in the way,” he said, as his ship was preparing to leave from Valletta for a new 15-day search and rescue mission.

The 2011 migrant tragedy saw some 150 people lose their lives when their boat capsized between Malta and Lampedusa.

We have to learn from these mistakes

The tragedy, and the ensuing public outrage, prompted the EU to step up its own search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean after “institutional inaction” had been blamed for the colossal loss of life.

“We have to learn from these mistakes,” Mr Gatti said. So who should be taking in migrants saved at sea? For years it has been accepted practice, also grounded in international law, that migrants rescued in Malta’s search and rescue area are taken to the nearest safe port of call.

Mr Gatti said the rescue had taken place well within Malta’s search and rescue zone and was coordinated by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome. But since the closest port was Lampedusa, the ship had proceeded there. It was not allowed entry.

The reason why dates back to 2004, when both Italy and Spain pushed for an amendment to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea such that the country responsible for a particular search and rescue area would also be responsible for accepting people rescued in that area.

The amendment passed, but Malta, as was its right, objected and refused to recognise the principle advanced by its two fellow European Union member states.

Why? The search and rescue area within Malta’s competence stretches all the way from Lampedusa in the west to Crete in the east. It is a vast stretch of sea – a colonial relic the island inherited from its time under the British which at one point even included air space that stretched deep into the Sahara.

Despite having pushed for the changes in international conventions, Italy for most of the past decade maintained its old policy of accepting migrants if they were rescued closer to its shores.

Earlier this week, former foreign minister George Vella warned that Malta could face the brunt of what appears to be Italy’s policy shift on migrant rescues in the central Mediterranean.

“There is no doubt that the latest incident signals a shift in policy as the Italian government tries to relay the message that things can no longer go on like this,” Dr Vella said.

The Italian government, he added, had to deal with deep disaffection in the smaller cities as the country faced an influx of migrants escaping from Libya.

“Incidents like this [of the Golfo Azzurro] have long been coming and are definitely intended for local consumption,” Dr Vella said, noting that Malta could get caught in the crossfire.