The Malta Independent 20 May 2022, Friday

Updated (3): Merchant ship hijacked by migrants heading towards Malta; AFM on alert

Wednesday, 27 March 2019, 15:25 Last update: about 4 years ago

The Armed Forces of Malta have been put on alert as a merchant vessel was taken over by migrants and headed towards Malta.

Earlier, Italian interior Minister Matteo Salvini said that the vessel was heading towards Malta or Lampedusa.

The governments of both countries vowed to keep it from their territorial waters in the Mediterranean.

Salvini said that the merchant ship was taking the rescued migrants back to Libya but six miles away from the coast the migrants had taken over control, and changed course north towards Malta or Lampedusa.

It would be the first hijacking of a ship by migrants, Salvini said.

The vessel, Elhiblu I, had rescued the migrants in Libyan waters. There are discrepancies on the number of migrants on board, with Salvini saying there are 120 migrants while Maltese authorities say there are 108.

There was no immediate word on the condition of El Hiblu 1's crew. Other information about the reported hijacking was unavailable or difficult to confirm while the vessel remained at sea.

"They are not migrants, they are hijackers," Salvini is reported to have said.

"Poor castaways, who hijack a merchant ship that saved them because they want to decide the route of the cruise," Salvini, who heads the anti-migrant League party, was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.

Italy's Salvini said weather conditions were not good and it was unclear if the tanker would end up approaching Malta or Lampedusa island. But he had a message for the pirates: "Forget about Italy."

Contacted by The Malta Independent, a spokesman for the OPM said that the Maltese government is trying to get a clearer picture before pronouncing itself.

The Armed Forces of Malta have acknowledged the hijacking and are understood to be on stand-by. 

A private group that operates a rescue ship and monitors how governments treat migrants, Mediterranea, urged compassion for the group on the hijacked vessel and said it hoped European countries would act "in the name of fundamental rights, remembering that we are dealing with human beings fleeing hell."

Mass migration to Europe has dropped sharply since 2015, when the continent received one million refugees and migrants from countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The surge created a humanitarian crisis in which desperate travelers frequently drowned and leading arrival spots such as Italy and Greece struggled to house large numbers of asylum-seekers.

Along with the dangerous sea journey itself, those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean risk being stopped by Libya's coast guard and held in Libyan detention centers that human rights groups have described as bleak places where migrants allegedly suffer routine abuse.

EU members "alert the Libyan coast guard when refugees and migrants are spotted at sea so they can be taken back to Libya, despite knowing that people there are arbitrarily detained and exposed to widespread torture, rape, killings and exploitation," Matteo de Bellis, an international migration researcher for Amnesty International, said. "

European Union member countries, responding to domestic opposition to welcoming immigrants, have decided to significantly downscale an EU operation in the Mediterranean, withdrawing their ships and continuing the mission with air surveillance only.

EU officials on Wednesday lamented the move, while Amnesty International and other groups responded by reiterating their view that Europe's collaboration with Libya to stem migration was a human rights outrage.

"This shameful decision has nothing to do with the needs of people who risk their lives at sea, but everything to do with the inability of European governments to agree on a way to share responsibility for them," de Bellis said.

The EU's Operation Sophia has been working to reduce migrant smuggling, train the Libyan coastguard and enforce an arms embargo on Libya.

EU Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said Wednesday that "without naval assets, the operation will not be able to effectively implement its mandate."

Italy commands Sophia but the anti-migrant government refuses to allow any people it rescues to be disembarked in its ports, complicating the mission.

EU countries agree in principle to renew Sophia's mandate for six months. For now, they want to recall its ships, but not its aircraft.

A formal decision must be made by March 31.



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