The Malta Independent 2 February 2023, Thursday
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Migrant Standoff: Pregnant woman reported dead as Malta and Italy squabble

Malta Independent Sunday, 19 April 2009, 00:00 Last update: about 10 years ago

One of three pregnant women on board a cargo ship stuck in limbo in international waters just south of Lampedusa, was reported to have died and her corpse placed on a life raft yesterday afternoon as Malta and Italy continued to squabble for a third consecutive day over responsibility for some 150 migrants rescued at sea close to the Italian island.

In the meantime, the ship’s captain, communicating with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees yesterday, issued an urgent appeal for assistance and supplies to prevent the human tragedy unfolding on board from deteriorating further.

The ship’s food and water supplies had been exhausted, as were the crew and their unexpected passengers – including some 40 minors and 37 women, two of whom are pregnant – by yesterday afternoon.

Speaking with the UNHCR yesterday, the MV Pinar’s captain Asik Tuygun, described the situation on board as “very critical”, and expressed concern that the situation had worsened significantly since Friday.

Another 40 migrants, the captain reports, are in urgent need of medical assistance and that two of the women on board were also in a “critical” state.

The UNHCR has described the situation as a “humanitarian emergency” that was becoming more difficult by the hour. Some of the migrants are reported to be in bad shape, and several were sleeping on deck for want of space inside the full cargo ship.

The ship was in urgent need of blankets, food, drinking and washing water, the UNHCR said, adding that hygiene facilities on the ship, which is carrying 13 crew, were not sufficient for all the people on board.

UNHCR spokesperson Laura Boldrini yesterday thanked the Pinar’s crew who, she said, were “demonstrating a great sense of responsibility”, which she said was missing on the parts of the governments involved.

In the meantime, medical personnel were airlifted by helicopter from Catania to once again visit and assess the condition of the migrants. A 15-year-old girl was reportedly airlifted to Lampedusa for urgent treatment.

Speaking yesterday, Ms Boldrini observed that the “ping pong” between States over responsibility for migrants rescued, in addition to aggravating the desperate situation aboard the Pinar, also serves to further discourage merchant and fishing vessels from lending assistance to troubled migrant boats since they were being penalised for doing so.

But appeals from the UNHCR and others to the Maltese and Italian governments to place politics aside and address the unfolding humanitarian emergency have, so far, fallen on deaf ears and both sides are sticking firmly to their guns.

As the Italian and Maltese governments continued to exchange verbal blows and accusations, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, ironically the EU’s previous commissioner responsible for migration, joined the fray yesterday and called on Malta to intervene and assume responsibility for the migrants in a situation he described as a “grave humanitarian emergency”.

Frattini sent instructions to Italian Ambassador to Malta Andrea Trabalza yesterday to “take steps at the highest levels to solicit an adequate intervention from the Valletta authorities”.

But as the two States wrangle over legal issues and responsibilities, the situation on board the Turkish-owned MV Pinar deteriorated further yesterday, with the ship’s captain calling for urgent assistance after the freighter ran out of food and water.

Media reports from Italy yesterday, still unconfirmed at the time of going to print last night, claim some of the migrants had taken over the Pinar’s engine room and had barricaded themselves inside, and that a pregnant woman on board the vessel had died and was placed on a life raft.

The Turkish vessel has been refused entry into Italian waters by the Italian authorities, who insist that the migrants should be brought to Malta, which is responsible for the search and rescue region in which they were picked up on Thursday.

Malta is insisting, however, that in terms of international conventions, the migrants have to be landed at the nearest safe haven, which in this case is Lampedusa since the rescues were undertaken just 41 nautical miles south of the island and 114 nautical miles from Malta.

The crux of the issue lies in international obligations, which differ when it comes to carrying out rescues at sea, where the closest port of call should be used to land migrants, and responsibility for search and rescue areas, which would attribute responsibility to the State in whose waters migrants are found.

On Friday Italian Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni accused Malta of dumping the immigrants on Italy and asked EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot to intervene and persuade Malta to assume its responsibilities.

In a reaction issued on Friday, the Maltese government commented, “Minister Maroni seems to be mixing up the obligations that a State has to coordinate search and rescue operations within its Search and Rescue Region with the obligation that a State has in rendering assistance to a vessel in distress, which is not related at all to the Search and Rescue Region.”

It added, “Malta has always co-ordinated the search and rescue operations carried out within the Search and Rescue Area falling under its responsibility, in strict adherence to its obligations, namely that it coordinates maritime search and rescue operations and that rescued persons are to be disembarked at the nearest safe port.”

Both governments, however, appear unwilling to back down and lose face with their public. The marked souring of relations is a bad omen for the coming summer season, where cooperation will be paramount in saving lives.

The strained relationship is also expected to have an effect on Malta’s partnership with Italy – as well as Cyprus and Greece – in the so-called Quadro Group of States pressuring the EU to take more proactive steps in addressing the migration situation and assisting the overburdened States.

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