400 people stranded on fishing boat off southern Italy

Home*Cover Story*International

400 people stranded on fishing boat off southern Italy

Four hundred people on board a fishing boat off the coast of southern Italy are yet to be rescued, more than two days after activists raised the alarm.

The boat, which is believed to have set out from Tobruk in Libya, was being escorted by the Italian coastguard on Tuesday.

But the situation on board remains “dramatic”, an unofficial hotline for migrants in distress said.

Italy’s coast guard said difficult sea conditions were affecting the rescue.

The boat is one of two vessels carrying migrants currently being assisted by the Italian coastguard. The second is carrying around 800 people.

The country’s coastguard has already rescued around 2,000 people in other operations since Friday, after a number of boats arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa, one of the main arrival ports for people wanting to reach Europe, over the weekend.

At least two migrants died and around 20 others were missing after their boat sank on Saturday night, German non-profit ResQship said.

The boat carrying 400 people was last located by Alarm Phone in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Sicily on Tuesday.

“Despite seeing rescue assets, which are escorting them, the situation on board is dramatic,” hotline Alarm Phone said. “[People on board] report several medical emergencies, water filling the vessel and no fuel left.”

An urgent alarm was first raised with the authorities of Italy, Greece and Malta on Sunday when the boat was found adrift in Maltese waters, Alarm Phone said.

German non-governmental organisation Sea-Watch International said two merchant vessels near the boat had been ordered not to help with rescue efforts by Malta while the boat was in Maltese waters. Instead, one of the ships had been allowed to supply it with fuel and water.

The Armed Forces of Malta told The Malta Independent that “no rescue was requested by the people on board”. In reaction, Alarm Phone tweeted that it had sent 21 emails to Maltese authorities to request a rescue operation. “We also called and asked for rescue, only to be hung up on,” it added.

The boat then drifted into Italian waters and was thought to be near the coast of Syracuse on Tuesday.

Italy’s coastguard said on Tuesday that prohibitive sea conditions meant the rescue operation was still ongoing.

It added that was also true of the second boat carrying around 800 people, which was said to be overcrowded. It is not clear where the boat set out from.

Migrant arrivals to Italy have risen steeply compared with the same period last year, despite efforts by the right-wing coalition government to clamp down on irregular migration.