The Maltese Navy was accused of sabotaging a migrant boat off the coast of Malta on Thursday after letting it drift for more than a day, the latest in a series of hard-line actions taken by European countries against migrants since the start of the coronavirus crisis.
An official from a Maltese Navy boat, the P62, boarded the migrant vessel roughly 20 miles southwest of Malta and damaged the engine before leaving the boat to drift, a migrant said in a mayday call to a nongovernmental watchdog that provides support for stricken migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. The organization, Alarm Phone, later shared an audio recording of the call with The New York Times.
“The Malta military is coming and cut the cable of electricity for the motor,” a man can be heard saying. “They are not want anybody come to Malta — they say that.”
The migrant boat, which left Libya about five days ago, was carrying around 70 people fleeing war-afflicted Libya, the migrants told Alarm Phone via a satellite phone provided to them by Libyan smugglers. A day earlier, the migrants said they had been approached several miles to the south by a separate Maltese Navy boat, the P51, and ignored.
The Maltese government said late Thursday that the migrants had been rescued, but did not comment on the accusations of sabotage. The government also warned that, given the coronavirus pandemic, it could no longer guarantee the rescue of migrants at sea.
The coronavirus crisis has led some European governments to take harsher measures against undocumented migrants, as they crack down on all forms of internal and external movement to combat the coronavirus.
Authorities in Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain have for years tried to prevent migration across the Mediterranean Sea, particularly since more than a million people landed on European shores in 2015. But their tactics have hardened since the coronavirus outbreak spread in southern Europe.
Though Europe has far more detected cases of coronavirus than North Africa, European officials fear migrants could have picked up the disease in Libya, the dominant transit point for most migrants seeking to reach Europe, and where the health system has been decimated by years of civil war.
Italy and Malta have now declared their ports closed to migrants, citing the threat of the coronavirus. The Maltese government has increasingly delayed responding to migrant boats in distress, and last month allowed the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrants who had already reached the Maltese zone of responsibility.
In Greece, the government has placed two migrant camps under lockdown after residents there tested positive for the disease.
Rights monitors are also concerned about the fate of thousands more migrants living in makeshift camps on several Greek islands. Many live in squalid conditions without regular access to running water, let alone soap or personal protection equipment, leading an alliance of rights organizations, including Amnesty International, to call for them to be moved to safer accommodation before disaster strikes.
“Given current conditions in the hot spots, containing any outbreak would be impossible and could potentially put thousands of lives in danger,” a spokesperson for the alliance said in a statement last month. “There is a window of opportunity to address this issue while the situation is still manageable, but we fear this window may be closing fast.”
The United Nations refugee agency has called on countries to uphold the legal right to asylum, even during the pandemic.
“There are ways to manage border restrictions in a manner which respects international human rights and refugee protection standards,” the agency said in a statement.