ALARM PHONE RECONSTRUCTION OF THE DISTRESS CASE WHERE A BOAT WITH 66 PEOPLE ON BOARD WAS ALLEGEDLY SABOTAGED BY THE ARMED FORCES OF MALTA (8-10 APRIL 2020)
In light of an ongoing enquiry against members of the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) for sabotaging the engine of a boat in distress in the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone, this Alarm Phone report seeks to provide a detailed account of the distress case that reached us in the early hours of 8 April 2020. We offer a timeline of events that took place between 8-10 April, as well as transcripts of two phone calls in which the 66 people in distress informed us that the AFM had sabotaged their engine and that they were watching but failing to rescue them.
Despite being informed about this boat in distress many times by phone and email, and despite receiving regular GPS positions from the Alarm Phone, the AFM failed to rescue the 66 people for about 40 hours. Instead of rescuing, they were merely observing the people in need through aerial assets. In this way, the suffering of the people at risk was unnecessarily prolonged, and their lives were placed in greater danger. Overcrowded and unstable boats in distress can easily capsize at any time and any delay in rescue can end in casualties, as proven by the 12 deaths that occurred just days later in the Maltese SAR zone in the context of the illegal push-back of 51 survivors to war and torture in Libya.
In addition to the failure to render immediate assistance and to rescue the people in distress in the Maltese SAR zone, the AFM are said to have actively sabotaged the migrant boat. While the AFM later argued that the cutting of a cable to the boat’s engine was a “standard procedure” during a SAR operation, the testimonies of the people in distress, as well as the timeline of events, proves that this was not the case. The first task of a rescuer is to calm people down, as panic on board can be extremely dangerous both for the rescued and for the rescuers. The fact that the AFM threatened the people in distress, verbally and physically, suggests that their aim was not to rescue the boat.
While the boat was in distress off its coast, Malta closed its harbours by declaring Malta ‘unsafe’ due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, and hypocritically, the closed ports policy was justified also as a way to protect the health and safety of migrants who, so the argument, would be spared the risk to their lives by preventing them from crossing the Mediterranean Sea. This ‘public health’ justificationignores not only the devastating conditions in Libya, a warzone in which migrants experience systematic forms of torture, abuse, and indiscriminate detention, but also grotesquely led to increased suffering and loss of life within the Maltese SAR zone.
In this report, we show in painstaking detail in what ways, and how often, Alarm Phone sought to mobilise rescue by alerting the Maltese authorities. In total, Alarm Phone reached out to RCC Malta 42 times: 34 times via the phone, though getting through only 11 times (mostly without receiving any information), and eight times via email. Moreover, we provide a full account of the testimonies received by the people in distress, which provide evidence to counter the dominant narrative provided by the AFM on the events.
Despite trying to portray the current situation as “exceptional” due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and thereby trying to justify the drastic border enforcement measures that have already cost lives, it is not only during the most recent period that RCC Malta and the AFM have seriously endangered lives at risk at sea.1 As we will show in a forthcoming report, the AFM has a track-record of practices of non-assistance, delayed rescues, and push-back operations at sea, thereby seriously violating human rights, maritime law, and international refugee conventions.
TIMELINE OF A DISTRESS CASE – 08-10 APRIL 2020
At 03.00h CEST, Alarm Phone received a distress call from 66 people in international waters (N 34°12’, E013°55’), close to the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) zone. After this call, Alarm Phone lost contact to the people in distress for the following 14 hours. Several times, Alarm Phone called MRCC Rome and RCC Malta to relay the distress case. While MRCC Rome took note of the details, RCC Malta was not reachable on all three emergency numbers (+35621257267, +35621809279 and +35622494202).
At 05.32h, Alarm Phone informed RCC Malta and MRCC Rome via email, without response. The first direct contact with RCC Malta was at 05.47h CEST, when the officer stated that the boat was located in the Libyan SAR. Alarm Phone clarified that contact had been lost with the people in distress so that the boat could have reached the Maltese SAR zone in the meantime.
At 11.42h, Alarm Phone was able to reach an officer of the so-called Libyan coastguard (scLYCG), Commodore Masoud Abdalsamad, on the phone, who stated that the scLYCG would need two hours to obtain Covid-protection equipment before launching an operation.
At 13.07h, Alarm Phone sent a second email to RCC Malta, asking for updates on any rescue activities – the email remained unanswered.
At 13.17h, Alarm Phone called MRCC Rome who stated that they were not responsible for rescuing this boat in distress.
At 17.31h, the people in distress reached out to Alarm Phone again and shared a GPS position that showed them within the Maltese SAR Zone (34°48’N, 013°27’E). They said that they had been at sea for four days, that they were embarking water, and that their engine was not working properly. They reported that they were in a dangerous situation and they asked for immediate help. The people in distress also informed Alarm Phone that a Maltese vessel, the P51, had approached them, telling them to leave Maltese waters.
At 18.17h, Alarm Phone informed RCC Malta via email about the urgency of the situation and relayed the updated GPS position of the boat in distress.
At 18.17h, Alarm Phone spoke to the people in distress for the third time. Once more, they asked for urgent rescue as water was in the boat. They also reported that they had received a call to their satellite phone from a number with the Maltese country code.
At 18.31h and at 18.40h, Alarm Phone tried to get through to RCC Malta, using three different numbers – but in vain.
At 21:07h, a helicopter of the AFM, AW139 (Maritime AIS: SAR 2281), went to the location of the boat in distress, according to tracking data reported by the journalist Sergio Scandura. According to the tracking platform Vessel Finder, it returned at around 23:00h. A second aircraft of the AFM (B200 AS1731) was documented as moving in direction south-west at 20:34h for a mission that lasted for 129 minutes.
Again, from 23.40h on, Alarm Phone tried to reach RCC Malta on the phone several times, but without success.
At 00.16h, Alarm Phone asked RCC Malta and MRCC Rome once more via email to immediately launch a rescue operation.
At 00.27h, Alarm Phone called RCC Malta on all 3 numbers, without success.
At 00.36h, Alarm Phone called MRCC Rome and they confirmed that they had received our email on this distress case but declined to provide further information.
At 03:50h, Alarm Phone called RCC Malta several times and on different numbers but in vain.
Over several hours, Alarm Phone tried to re-connect with the people in distress but was unable to get through to them.
At 09.55h, the people in distress tried to reach out to Alarm Phone twice, but due to the bad connection it was not possible to communicate.
At 10.10h, the people in distress called Alarm Phone again. This time, we were able to communicate. They passed on a new, but incomplete, GPS position: N35°33.642 E°14.11 (the 11 is unclear). They confirmed that their engine was still running.
At 10.43h, Alarm Phone forwarded the updated GPS position to RCC Malta and MRCC Rome via email. During phone calls with RCC Malta (11.08h) and MRCC Rome (11.24h), both confirmed that they had received the e-mail and the updated GPS position, but declined to provide further information on their intention, or lack thereof, to launch a SAR operation.
At 14.16h, Alarm Phone reached RCC Malta on the phone, and the officer said: “The policy of Malta because of Corona is that nothing can leave Malta and nothing can enter Malta and this includes migrants.” When reminded of their duty to rescue people in distress at sea, the officer responded that they were investigating the case as they would investigate all cases.
At 17.34h, the people in distress reached out to Alarm Phone, stating that they had been at sea for five days. They shared their updated GPS position, which showed them 17 nautical miles off the Maltese coast (35° 39’N, 014° 13’E). They reported that their engine was not working, that they had almost run out of fuel and that they were embarking water. The people in distress also said that they had contacted the Armed Forces of Malta through their satellite phone to inform them of their dangerous situation and to ask for rescue. They said that the Armed Forces of Malta told them to continue by themselves.
A few minutes later, at 17.38h, the people in distress reached out to Alarm Phone once more and reported that a Maltese military ship had cut the cord to their engine and had told them to die at sea.
Here we provide excerpts of their testimony to Alarm Phone, which we recorded:
Alarm Phone: “Hello, this is WatchTheMed Alarm Phone.”
Person on Boat: “Hello, hello, yesterday I call you. [Inaudible]. We need your help, we need your help. We have emergency Sir, we have emergency Sir. Now I see Malta, I see Malta. [Inaudible]. The Malta military, the Malta military is coming and cut the cable of electricity for the motor. And the Malta military knows that the water is in the boat right now, right now. He says, not that anybody come to Malta. He said that. And when he moved, he said I leave you, I leave you die in the water but nobody come to Malta. I will give you the location, my location, the location by GPS. [Inaudible]. Please please someone call help us.”
Alarm Phone: “What is our location right now?”
Person on Boat: “Okay okay yes. Hello Sir? North 35 degree, 39.454, East 014 degree, 12.817.”
Immediately after this call, at 17.45h, Alarm Phone called RCC Malta, but the officer refused to copy the new GPS position of the boat in distress and hung up. Alarm Phone tried to reach RCC Malta again several times, but the calls were put on hold.
At 18.00h, the people in distress reached out to Alarm Phone. We told them that we were still trying to organise help for them.
At 18.02h, Alarm Phone sent e-mails to RCC Malta and MRCC Rome to provide the updated GPS position and to urge them to rescue immediately. Soon after, at 18.10h, RCC Malta confirmed on the phone that they had received this email and that they were investigating the case.
At 18.27h, Alarm Phone received yet another call from the people in distress, who were in panic and reported that they could see two Maltese military ships (including AFM vessel P52). They confirmed once more that the military had sabotaged their engine, and that they were trying to take away their phone.
Here we provide the full transcript of their testimony to Alarm Phone, which we recorded:
Alarm Phone: “Hello, this is WatchTheMed Alarm Phone.”
Person on Boat: “Hello hello Sir, please take this number. The military of Malta want to take my phone.”
Alarm Phone: “They want to take your phone?”
Person on Boat: “Please help us, please help us. I call you one more time. Please help us, please help us. We will die, we will die in the water. Hello?”
Alarm Phone: “Yes, I can hear you, we are recording okay?”
Person on Boat: “Take this number, please, take this number and send ship to help us, please, come on.”
Alarm Phone: “Can you tell me the number of the ship that you see. Is it P51?”
Person on Boat: “[Inaudible]. You send someone to help us?”
Alarm Phone: “Can you tell us the number of the ship that you see, the military ship?”
Person on Boat: “Ok Ok [Inaudible]. Please, we will die, we will die in Maltese water.”
Alarm Phone: “We gave your position to the Maltese coastguards.”
Person on Boat: “Ok, the Malta military is [near?] us. The number P52. Please. We will die, we will die.”
Alarm Phone: “Your engine is no longer running, right?”
Person on Boat: “Ok, ok, the cable of motor, the Malta military cut the cable. Now now we have 5 days in the water and water in the boat right now. Please some of you help us. Please.”
Alarm Phone: “One more question, how far away, how far away is the military from you? How far away is the military boat?”
Person on Boat: “Ehm, ok, I don’t know but I see there two ships, two ships military of Malta. P52 and I don’t know the number of the other one.”
Alarm Phone: “Ok, does it look the same? Do the two ships look the same?”
Person on Boat: “Ok, we wanna help, we wanna help, we wanna help. We need your help, please, we will die.”
Alarm Phone: “Do the two ships look the same. Are they the same ship?”
Person on Boat: “Any any any ship will help us send to Europe, not back to Libya. Please please help us. Okay take this is the number of location.”
Alarm Phone: “The military ship. The military ship.”
Person on Boat: “Alan Kurdi or Sea-Watch or any ship. Please we want a life. North… north…”
Alarm Phone: “Can you please tell me if the two ships, do they look the same? The military ship?”
Person on Boat: “Okay okay okay, take this location… North 35 degree, 35.423.”
Alarm Phone: “35.423.”
Person on Boat: “Yes, again. North 35 degree, 35.423.”
Alarm Phone: “East? East?”
Person on Boat: “014 degree, 13.067.”
Alarm Phone: “014 degree, 13.067.”
Person on Boat: “Yeah yeah. The military of Malta [inaudible] my phone. Please, this, this.”
Alarm Phone: “Please keep your phone.”
Person on Boat: “Ok, send send send send anything. Please. Please help us, please help us.”
Alarm Phone: “We will try. We already alerted the Malta coastguard. Okay.”
Person on Boat: “[Inaudible]. You can you can say that… The military of Malta steals us. Okay?”
Alarm Phone: “One more question, okay? There are two ships. Two ships. Malta. Okay?”
Person on boat: “Please hurry up.”
This was the last call we had with the people in distress.
GPS POSITION OF THE BOAT IN DISTRESS, AT THE TIME OF THE SABOTAGE
At 19.00h, Alarm Phone sent an e-mail to RCC Malta and to UNHCR Malta, reporting that according to the testimony of the people in distress, a Maltese military vessel had approached the boat in distress and sabotaged their engine, telling them that they would let them die at sea. In this email, Alarm Phone expressed concerns about the events and requested immediate clarification as well as urgent rescue.
At 19.08h, Alarm Phone tweeted: “They called again saying: “Please help us! We will die. We will die in the water. We will die in Maltese waters. The Malta military ship number is P52, the number of the ship. Please we will die. Now we are 5 days in the water and the water is in the boat now. Please help.”
At 19.47h, Alarm Phone received a phone call from an officer of RCC Malta. The officer claimed that the boat Alarm Phone had alerted RCC Malta to was not in distress and said that it is not in the capacity of the Alarm Phone to decide whether or not a boat is in distress. The officer stated that all Maltese ports were closed and that, by law, no one would enter or exit Malta. The officer also stated that anyone entering Malta illegally would be brought to detention for breaking the law. Asked by Alarm Phone what would happen to any boat in distress, the officer said that they would not need to inform us about procedures.
At 20.25h, Alarm Phone tweeted: “We cannot reach the people in distress anymore. We hope this is a sign that public pressure worked & Malta was forced to take them aboard. Malta’s AFM vessel P51 had approached this boat already yesterday but disappeared, as the migrants reported at 17.32h CEST on 08/04.” And shortly after we tweeted: “The Armed Forces of Malta did not react to our pleas for rescue. The migrants survived another night at sea and moved closer to Malta. We could reach them only tonight again when they reported of the attack at sea. They state that two military vessels were nearby.”
At 21.13h, Alarm Phone called RCC Malta once more, but the officer declined to provide any information on the situation.
Around 21.15h, the Maltese Government released a press release declaring that “the Maltese authorities are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of prohibited immigrants on board of any boats, ships or other vessels, nor to ensure the availability of a “safe place” on the Maltese territory to any persons rescued at sea.”
At 22.13h, Alarm Phone called RCC Malta once more. The officer declined again to provide information on the ongoing situation and was unable to contact the duty officer.
At 23.40h, Alarm Phone called RCC Malta again. The officer stated that he did not have any information.
At 00.58h, Alarm Phone called RCC Malta. The officer said he would forward the call to the duty officer but then hung up the phone.
At 07.35h, Alarm Phone called RCC Malta and received the information that a rescue of 66 people had been completed the evening before.
At 08.37h, Alarm Phone tweeted: “Finally, at 7.35h today, Malta confirmed to us that the people (66 in total) were disembarked at ~22.30h last night, ~41h after first alert. We call on Malta to stop non-assistance & attacks on people in distress! Do not use #Covid19 as excuse to violate fundamental human rights!”