Around 500 refugees and migrants are on board a ship in distress in the Mediterranean Sea after leaving Libya for Europe, humanitarian organizations say.
The Italian NGO Emergency said on Wednesday that the ship, which holds 45 women and 56 children, including a baby born overnight at sea, was flooding.
He said his Life Support rescue ship was heading towards the ship but needed another 10 hours to reach the scene in Maltese waters.
The nationalities of the people on board are unknown.
“It is a race against time in an attempt to save as many lives as possible,” Albert Mayordomo, Life Support’s chief of mission, said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera. “The lack of coordination on the part of the authorities is a serious violation of the law of the sea.”
Emergency said it had contacted the Maltese authorities, in accordance with maritime procedures, but had received no response since Tuesday, when Alarm Phone, a non-governmental organization that relays distress calls from the Mediterranean to emergency services, emergency, he pointed to the ship.
???? ~500 people adrift in the Central Mediterranean!
Alarm Phone was alerted by a large ship in distress. People report that they fled from #Libya several days ago and that your engine has stopped. Authorities are informed: Rescue efforts are needed urgently and without delay! pic.twitter.com/WqkgFSSaqO
— Alarm phone (@alarm_phone) May 23, 2023
Emergency said it had also sent a request for assistance to Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, which responded by saying the case falls under the mandate of the Maltese authorities.
The Maltese coast guard did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment, while Italian authorities declined to comment.
Paolo Fusarini, captain of Life Support, said his crew was preparing for a difficult nighttime rescue.
“The weather conditions are not favourable,” he said in a statement sent to Al Jazeera. “We are going towards waves of 1.5 meters that will make the operation difficult.”
Fusarini said he did not have much hope of reaching the scene in time and feared many people would drown before Life Support got there.
On Tuesday, Alarm Phone said local authorities had been informed of the boat’s presence without specifying whether they were Maltese or Italian officials.
Soon after, the German NGO Sea-Watch said it had sent its light observation aircraft, Sea Bird, to locate the vessel.
On Wednesday, Alarm Phone said it had lost contact with the ship.
“We lost contact this morning, after continually alerting and updating authorities in #Malta and #Italy,” he said. “500 people can’t just disappear!”
Sea-Watch was unable to locate the ship, saying in a tweet: “The fact that Malta’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center has ignored our calls is unacceptable. We demand immediate clarification.”
More than 45,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean so far this year, the highest number since 2017.
An estimated 1,090 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since January, according to the International Organization for Migration.
‘Italy delays, Malta ignores’
This month, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a European network of 105 NGOs in 39 European countries, summed up the situation at stake in the Mediterranean: “Italy delays, Malta ignores, Tunisia and Libya back down and abuse.”
“The Italian authorities continue with the policy of assigning distant ports to NGO rescue vessels for the disembarkation of survivors,” he said. Malta failed to rescue more than 7,000 people in danger in the country’s SAR [search and rescue] area in 2022 and reports of non-response tactics continue to rise.”
On January 2, the Italian government passed a law requiring rescue ship captains to request a port immediately after a rescue rather than continue at sea and assist with multiple distress calls.
Authorities are assigning more and more distant ports for landing, which NGOs say increases costs and reduces efficiency.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has rejected claims that government policies to discourage migration played a role in a shipwreck off the nation’s southern coast in March that killed at least 72 people.
Almost two weeks after the sinking, the Italian coast guard carried out a major rescue operation, bringing to safety more than 1,000 people stranded on three ships in distress.
The Maltese government has also faced criticism. A report published in March this year by the Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, a network of non-governmental actors involved in search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean, concluded that “at sea, Maltese authorities regularly abandon those They need rescue.”
The report says that in 2022, more than 20,000 people in distress were ignored by the Maltese authorities, 413 boats with people in need of help did not receive assistance and only three boats were rescued by the Maltese armed forces.
“Lack of assistance is now a routine part of a deadly set of measures aimed at reducing arrivals in Malta,” the report said.
So far in 2023, the Maltese authorities have only rescued 92 people.
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