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Mediterranean Sea: Charity says 270 migrants stranded in 'critical' state

Organisation Alarm Phone says coastguard, merchant ships have refused to rescue three boats off the coast of Italy
Sea Watch Italy posted photos on 2 April 2021 of boats carrying hundreds of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe (Sea Watch/Twitter)

Around 270 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea are in "critical" shape after passing merchant ships refused to rescue them, a charity said on Saturday.  

"The situation of the around 270 people at sea is still critical," tweeted Alarm Phone, a volunteer-run Mediterranean rescue hotline.  

"They have all been abandoned at sea for many hours at risk of drowning. We don't want another Easter tragedy!" the group posted.

The three boats concerned - two with approximately 110 people on board each, and a third carrying around 60 - were within or near the confines of Malta and Italy's search-and-rescue zones, according to Alarm Phone.

Yet Malta's armed forces and the Italian coastguard have refused to assist or coordinate rescue by passing merchant vessels, the group said, an account that AFP could not immediately verify.

Neither authority immediately responded to AFP requests for comment by telephone and email. 

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Alarm Phone first signalled the presence of three boats carrying migrants late on Friday. 

Another humanitarian group, Sea-Watch, wrote on Twitter on the same evening that its aircraft had located the three boats signalled by Alarm Phone. The German migrant rescue group similarly appealed to two nearby merchant ships to rescue those on board. 

On Saturday morning, Alarm Phone reported that people aboard the smaller vessel told them water was now beginning to seep into the boat, while the approximately 100 people in another boat were "in panic," having gone without food and water for 40 hours. 

Alarm Phone said it had lost contact with the third boat, carrying about 110 people southwest of Malta.

"With the criminalisation and hindering of NGO rescue operations, merchant vessels are the only potential rescue assets at sea," Alarm Phone wrote. 

"Yet, both Maltese and Italian authorities refuse to order them to rescue or to organise any form of assistance."

Upsurge in crossings

Last year saw an upsurge of makeshift boats attempting to cross the central Mediterranean, the deadliest route for would-be migrants to Europe.

More than 1,200 migrants died in 2020 trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, according to the International Organisation for Migration. 

Since January, about 300 migrants have died or gone missing during the dangerous journey, the UN agency said.