Migrants aboard the Diciotti coastguard vessel. Photo: Il Fatto Quotidano
An asylum seeker has testified in an Italian inquiry about how the Maltese authorities had refused to rescue him and other migrants from a wooden boat in Malta’s search and rescue area last August.
Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano yesterday quoted the testimony of Aphem Fishea as part of an inquiry into how Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini had initially refused to allow an Italian coastguard vessel, the Diciotti, to disembark 190 asylum seekers in Catania.
Back in August, Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that a Maltese patrol boat had monitored the wooden boat as it transited international waters which fall under Malta’s search and rescue areas. According to Muscat, the migrants weren’t in distress and had actually refused help.
“Since they were in international waters, they had a right of passage and we couldn’t tell them where to go and what to do,” he said.
However, Fishea – one of the asylum seekers who was on board the wooden boat on 16th August – offered a completely different version of events.
“The Maltese said they wouldn’t allow us into Malta, they added that we had wrong directions and that they would show us the way to Italy,” he was quoted as saying. “The sea was very rough and we were scared, when the Maltese came close we were very happy because we assumed they would rescue us. There were sick people on board and we communicated this to the Maltese, we also told them that there were children on board. They told us to follow them and that they would direct us to Italy.”
“We followed the Maltese boat for 24 hours, but then in the middle of the night they abandoned us. The sea was very rough, our wooden boat was taking on water, and we feared that we would sink. After some time, an Italian boat approached us and they rescued us without asking us anything.”
According to Il Fatto Quotidiano, Italy asked Malta to intervene to save the asylum seekers at 2:55am on 12th August but received no reply. Ten minutes later, the Italian coast guard ordered the Diciotti on a rescue mission after receiving a SOS from the migrant vessel.
“After the Maltese authorities said they were awaiting formal communications, the Italian coastguard had no option but to take interim measures and rescue the 190 migrants,” the report reads.
“The Italian coast guard’s communications paint a dramatic picture. The water level on the migrant vessel was almost as high as the engine and the sailors had to escape the boat immediately after rescuing the migrants. The boat was completely submerged an hour later.”
After the rescue, the chief of staff of the home affairs ministry asked coast guard admiral Sergio Liardo why Italy didn’t insist with Malta to accept the asylum seekers themselves. Liardo later got back to him to say: “We are trying”.
A diplomatic spat with Malta ensued, but Italy eventually agreed to let the asylum seekers disembark, after reaching a distribution agreement with Albania and Ireland.