The Malta Independent 21 September 2018, Friday

Government reacts as Italy PM says Diciotti migrants could have died due to Malta's 'inaction'

Wednesday, 12 September 2018, 15:16 Last update: about 9 days ago

Italian PM says boat sank soon after Italy rescued migrants ‘abandoned’ by Malta

A migrant boat that Malta “refused” to intercept in mid-August sank shortly after all people on board were saved by the Italian coast guard, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said yesterday.

Briefing the Senate on the Diciotti case, Conte said Malta had abandoned the migrants when there were clear signs that the vessel was in imminent danger of sinking. Many of the migrants would have died had Italy not stepped in to save them, he claimed.

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Reacting this afternoon, the Maltese government insisted that it had acted in line with international rules, and had offered assistance to the migrants, who had refused it.

The migrant vessel had been intercepted by the Armed Forces of Malta in international waters, with the Maltese government saying that the boat was not in distress and that its occupants wanted to go to Italy. Since there was no emergency, the vessel was not stopped, but the AFM patrol boat escorted the migrant boat out of its duty of care, the government had said.

Italy insists, however, that the vessel was in distress, pointing out that 13 people needed to be evacuated by helicopter. Now it is also saying that there were others signs of distress as well.

The ship became stranded outside of Lampedusa after both governments refused it entry into their ports. After spending a number of days stranded at sea, the vessel was allowed to dock in Sicily, but the migrants were still not allowed to disembark. They were eventually allowed off the ship after ten days.

During the standoff, Italy and Malta traded barbs, with firebrand home affairs minister Matteo Salvini accusing Malta of shirking its duties and transport minister Danilo Toninelli urging sanctions against Malta.

Speaking in the Senate, Conte said he was giving the ‘real’ story about the Diciotti case. He said Malta was responsible for coordinating the rescue. “Without the concrete and direct intervention by the Diciotti many of the migrants would have died.”

He said the Italian authorities had always acted to protect lives and human dignity, combined with a respect towards international laws and obligations.

He said that, on 15 August, after being contacted by the Libyan authorities, Malta had assumed responsibility for the search and rescue operation.

He said the vessel was located in an area some 50 km south of Malta and 100 away from Lampedusa.

Like Salvini, he claimed that the Maltese forced had shown the migrants the way towards Italian waters.

“The Maltese showed them the way towards Italy, even escorting them in that direction, without being too concerned about them or the condition they were in – about the possibility that the boat would sink. They washed their hands of the migrants.”

He said the Italian coast guard had decided to pick up the migrants because there was a very clear possibility that the boat would sink. The decision was based on past experience and worsening meteorological conditions.

“Had we not acted, many of those on the migrant boat would have drowned.”

Conte said that on the morning of 16 August, the Diciotti’s helicopter found traces that the migrant boat had sunk. Its crew spotted floating life jackets and a patch of fuel oil.

Conti said the Diciotti affair was not a positive chapter in the history of the EU, which had failed to act on its fundamental principles of solidarity and responsibility. He said Italy was not prepared to take in migrants in the same way and numbers it used to do.

 

Maltese government statement

In a statement, the Maltese government referred to the “inaccurate comments” made by the Italian PM. 

“The Government of Malta reiterates that in the case of the Diciotti, the Italian Government clearly bears full responsibility for disembarkation in accordance with the respective obligations under international and EU law.

To set the record straight, Malta in no way reneged on its obligations under international law. In fact in this case, contrary to what the Italian Prime Minister said, Malta offered its assistance, and it was refused. Given that this was on the high seas, Malta could not intercept the vessel with force but continued, however, to closely monitor boat exercising its freedom of navigation fulfilling its duty of care. The Italian vessel intercepted the boat just outside its territorial seas exercising effective control and jurisdiction and took the migrants on board the coastguard vessels and therefore Italian territory. Thus, the full obligations incumbent upon Italy under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Geneva Convention) and the respective EU legislation. The Common European Asylum System including the Dublin Regulation kicked in at the moment that the rescued persons were taken aboard.

In case the Italian Government insists in stating that this was a SAR case, any rescues within Malta’s SRR should be coordinated by the competent authority and disembarkation should take place in the nearest place of safety to the event, in this case Lampedusa. If the Italian Government chooses to designate Lampedusa as not being safe, it must shoulder the burden of providing an alternative.

Malta renews its call for continued international cooperation and a stop to public statements which are false,” the government said. 

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