Over 400 in distress at sea, rescue charity says Italy and Malta ignoring aid call

Boat with 430 people, including children and minors, in severe distress

An AFM patrol boat
An AFM patrol boat

A boat with approximately 430 people on board, including dozens of children and minors, is in severe distress in the central Mediterranean Sea.

Rescue hotline The Alarm Phone was alerted by the distressed people on board at 11:57a, on 24 November 2021.

“According to them, the boat is disintegrating, and they cannot hold out much longer. Moreover, they report that several people have already died. There are over 100 people below deck – in case of a shipwreck, they would be trapped inside the vessel,” the rescue charity said.

The last position received from the boat was at 7:54am on 25 November. Alarm Phone has repeatedly informed European authorities in Italy and Malta.

“MRCC Rome has informed us that they were not the ‘competent authority’ in this case, while RCC Malta simply hangs up the phone when we try to relay information on the case.

“It is clear that neither the Libyan coastguards nor the Tunisian forces can adequately deal with this distress situation. Indeed, we fear that their involvement might prompt panic on board as the people do not want to return to a place of unsafety, but seek protection in Europe.”

The Tunisian authorities told The Alarm Phone at midnight that it would not be possible to carry out a rescue operation involving over 400 people.

“This morning, the Tunisian coastguard sent out two assets but according to people on board, they are not intervening. The Tunisian authorities have said that they were trying to coordinate with MRCC Rome but to us, MRCC Rome simply keeps repeating that they are not the competent authorities.

“However, according to relevant conventions and customary principles of international law and the law of the sea, the informed Rescue Coordination Centres are responsible to coordinate a rescue operation,” the Alarm Phone said.

The Search And Rescue Convention establishes clear obligations on coastal states to coordinate and protect life at sea, regardless of the strict division of search and rescue areas as far as the allocation of responsibility is concerned.

In the case of Italy, this principle was recently reaffirmed in its national SAR plan, which expressly provides that “outside the area of national responsibility the IMRCC coordinates the actions in favour of means and people in danger, in the cases in which it acts as the first R.C.C. informed of the event and until the competent R.C.C., or another RCC able to better assist, assumes the coordination of SAR operations.”

Italy was condemned for violating the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on search and rescue, while the unlawfulness of the Maltese failure to coordinate rescues was also recognised in the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee of 27 January 2021 concerning the “Libra case”.