The Italian Coast Guard is leading rescue efforts to save at least 400 migrants adrift on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Malta, along an immigration route that NGOs have warned is perilously dangerous.
Three rescue operations involving several vessels are ongoing to assist the boat of 400 migrants, as well as another boat with an estimated 800 people on board, the coast guard told CNN.
The boat carrying 400 migrants is about 170 miles southeast of Capo Passero, off the coast of Calabria, and is at risk of capsizing after being stranded for at least 24 hours.
The support service Alarm Phone said in a tweet Sunday that it had received a call from the boat, which had departed from Tobruk, Libya, overnight, adding it had reported the situation to authorities, but no rescue operation had been announced.
Many on board require medical attention, Alarm Phone said, including a child, a pregnant woman and a disabled person. It said passengers reported some distressed people may have jumped overboard, including one person who it said was unconscious on the boat. The boat’s hull had filled with water, it added.
Every year, tens of thousands of migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty risk the treacherous route in search of better economic prospects. They travel in dinghies that are unfit for the journey and can be left stranded, sparking major diplomatic rows between European countries in the region.
In 2022, 105,131 people reached Italy via the Mediterranean Sea, according to the latest figures from the UN’s refugee agency. The same data found that 1,368 were left dead or missing. In March, at least 28 migrants died after their boats sank off the coast of Tunisia as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.
So far this year, 27,875 people have made the voyage. Most arrivals have journeyed from the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Pakistan.
German NGO Sea-Watch International tweeted it had found the boat on Sunday, adding Maltese authorities had ordered two nearby merchant ships not to rescue those on board, but had asked one of them to supply the boat with fuel, food and water. CNN has contacted the Maltese authorities for comment, but has not yet received a response.
Sea-Watch told CNN on Monday that the weather had become “very bad” during the night, with waves up to 1.5 meters (5 feet). “Due to the number of people on the boat and the current weather conditions, there is an urgent risk that the boat will capsize,” a spokesperson for the NGO said.
“The sea rescue coordination center in Malta must therefore immediately initiate a rescue operation. Instead, however, merchant ships are instructed to simply dispense gasoline so that the boat can sail to Italy on its own, which is terribly dangerous,” the spokesperson continued.
Alarm Phone said in a tweet it had managed to reconnect with the boat during the early hours on Monday, adding the migrants had continued their journey and had now reached the shared Search and Rescue (SAR) zone between Malta and Italy. “They report high waves and strong wind. Still, no rescue is in sight! Don’t abandon them at sea, rescue [them] now!” the NGO urged.
The Italian Coast Guard told CNN Monday more than 1,700 migrants had arrived on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in the last 48 hours. It added there were now 1,800 migrants in a space designed for 400. Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, is a major destination for migrants seeking to enter European Union countries.