The Malta Independent 15 August 2022, Monday

Migrant boats from Libya skipping Malta - Italian Minister Alfano

Gabriel Schembri Tuesday, 14 March 2017, 13:05 Last update: about 6 years ago

Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Angelino Alfano said that it is not possible for Sicily to "always" be considered as the nearest safe port for migrants leaving Libya when Tunisia and Malta are much closer to the migrant routes.

Mr Alfano’s concerns were quoted by Sicilian newspaper CataniaOggi.  “This issue is quite worrying,” he says.The courts in Catania have ordered an investigation into the reasons why vessels saving migrant lives from Libya are bypassing Malta and Tunisia.

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The Sicilian newspaper looked into the matter following a news report which was aired during Striscia la Notizia on Canale 5. Journalists from this programme chased down a young video blogger, Luca Donadel, who carried out an investigation which shows how ships engaged in migrant rescue operations head straight towards Sicily, ignoring Malta and Tunisia.

Donadel explained that, according to the United Nations maritime law, persons saved in international waters should be taken to the closest safe port. In many cases, the rescued migrants should either be taken to the port of Zarzis in Tunisia, which is 90 nautical miles away, or Malta, which sits 180 nautical miles from Libya. Sicily is 250 miles away from Libya.

The declaration by the Italian Minister brings back a question which has been the subject of much speculation – how did migrants suddenly stop reaching our shores after years of influx of African nationals into Malta?

This question was also asked by Italian MEP Elisabetta Gardini, who asked the European Commission to explain the abnormally low numbers of migrants being disembarked in Malta after being rescued at sea, and questioned whether the Commission is aware of any informal agreement between the Maltese and Italian governments related to rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

In September 2015, Minister for Home Affairs Carmelo Abela had admitted that there was an "informal collaboration" between Malta and Italy whereby all migrants saved in the central Mediterranean would be disembarked in Italy. Later on during that same day he had backtracked, saying that what exists was very close collaboration where Malta uses all its AFM resources to save migrants from the sea.

Questions were raised because of the extremely low number of migrants entering Malta’s shores not being consistent with the sheer volume of those fleeing via North Africa this year, in particular Syrians crossing over into Africa and then making the journey to Europe in hope of a better life.

Minister Alfano has told Italian media that Italy has guaranteed to offer solidarity and security. “We are world champions with regards to solidarity. We have saved hundreds of thousands of life and so far, there were no serious [terrorist] attempts”.

In launching the investigation, the court in Sicily said that “we want to understand what’s behind these humanitarian organisations which flourished during recent years, how they are being financed and what their game is.”

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