The Malta Independent 23 September 2019, Monday

Watch: Libyan ‘coastguard’ told NGO migrant ship to head North towards Europe - Sea Eye Captain

Neil Camilleri & Rebekah Cilia Tuesday, 8 January 2019, 14:57 Last update: about 10 months ago

The captain of one of two NGO rescue ships currently stranded off Malta has told The Malta Independent that it was the Libyan coastguard that instructed the vessel to head north.

Captain Klaus Merkle was speaking to journalists from The Malta Independent during a visit on the NGO’s vessel – the Professor Albrecht Penck.

Merkle said the grey boat had no identifying markings. “There was no flag, there was no name on it, there was no label. There were people without uniforms or badges. They told us they are the Libyan coastguard and told us to leave the area and go North,” Merkle said.

The Prof. Albrecht Penck and the Sea Watch 3, which is operated by Sea Watch, are currently stranded off the Southern coast of Malta awaiting instructions. The two vessels are harbouring 49 migrants who were rescued late in December. A number of European countries have pledged to take some of these migrants but no agreement has been agreed.

Prof. Albrecht Penck was sailing on the 29th December when at 7am a small blue boat was spotted in the distance, Merkle said. The boat had 17 people onboard.

“We found the boat in an unstable situation. It was overcrowded and some people were in weak condition. We took the decision to take the people on board,” he continued.

The boat called Rome Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) who told them to contact Libya, which they did. Later on the Libyan coastguard showed up and they told them to leave the area and go 90 miles north.

The weather was getting worse so the Captain steered the boat towards Malta. They received a call from the Maltese Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) telling them that there was another distress situation so they sailed back South for seven hours.

The boat was accompanied south by a Maltese patrol boat, which eventually took on the people found in the distress situation. After this operation the boat headed towards Malta for shelter and was granted permission after some delays.  

This was 11 days ago and so far nothing has been concluded as to the faith of these migrants. Severe weather is expected on Wednesday with the Captain’s weather charts predicting four-meter waves. Consequently, Merkle has taken the decision to steer the boat towards Malta’s eastern coast.

Morale onboard was unsurprisingly low, however, Sophie Weidenhiller, one of the crew members said she “is actually surprised at how tough they are. But then again, I think this is because of the circumstances they have been through.”

“They are very patient and grateful. I think for them it is nice to be treated like a human being because we hang out here on deck, we talk. I think they are happy they are safe for now. On the other hand, they are worried about the future, their families. Some of them haven’t talked to their family in months and their mothers, brothers, sisters do not even know if they are alive or what happened to them,” she said.

Weidenhiller said that the migrants are kept informed of the situation although the crew themselves do not know what will happen or when it will happen. The migrants are from Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Mali, New Guinea and Cameroon she said.

The crew showed the small room, originally intended to be a sick-bay, where the migrants sleep. There is also a container outside which doubles up as sleeping quarters.

Onboard the Prof. Albrecht Penck there is only one woman migrant and the crew have secluded a spot just for her in one of the tiny cabins.

The migrants use life vests to keep warm since blankets are scare. Luxuries such as showering are not common ground due to the rationing of water.

The boat was supplied yesterday, during the visit, ferrying over water, shoes, rice, fruit, bread and sweets. The crew was visibly delighted to have fresh food onboard. One of the boxes of chocolate supplied to the boat was sent directly from Archbishop Charles Scicluna.

Speaking to this newspaper, one of the migrants onboard he said that he is from Cameroon and started his journey two years ago. He spoke of the turmoil in his country and said it was the same situation in most of Africa.

He said that before reaching the NGO vessel he was in prison in Libya, “they used us just like a slave, made us work without paying us.”

The migrant was approached to go to Europe and he was excited because he would be leaving the conditions he was in. The fact that he had to leave in a small boat was irrelevant, he said, because it was a risk worth taking considering the conditions in Libya.

One of the minors onboard, only 17 years-old also told this newspaper he had been on his journey for two years. The boy asked the authorities to show ‘mercy’. He also spoke atrocities in Libya.


Photos: Rene Rossignaud, Rebekah Cilia; Video: Neil Camilleri

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