Wilfred Kenely, High Commissioner of Malta, New Delhi, writes:

I refer to the article ‘Migrants at sea are not toxic cargo’ by Navi Pillay in The Hindu, September 9.

This reply incorporates excerpts from press statements given by the Maltese authorities following the incident of death of migrants on the Mediterranean referred to in the article.

The tragedy of 75 migrants who allegedly went missing, assuming that it happened, occurred outside the search and rescue(SAR) zone of Malta and Italy, namely in Libyan SAR and at no moment in time did the Maltese authorities have any knowledge or information relating to such incident. It is preposterous to assume that Malta should be held responsible for incidents occurring without its knowledge outside its search and rescue zone. When the Frontex aircraft based in Malta spotted the rubber dinghy for the first time it was still in Libyan SAR zone and there were only the five immigrants on board. This statement was made by the Maltese Minister of Foreign Affairs Tonio Borg.

Brigadier Carmelo Vassallo, Commander of the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM), explained the sequence of events. A maritime patrol aircraft operating a FRONTEX Joint-Operation Nautilus 2009 mission had spotted the five Eritrean migrants in Libyan SAR zone on Wednesday 19 August afternoon, and directed one of the AFM’s surface assets towards it. When the AFM vessel reached the illegal immigrants’ dinghy, it found that the five migrants were in good spirits and in good health, and that their dinghy was in a good condition and with its outboard motor running. When asked if they wanted to be brought to Malta, the five refused and insisted in continuing on their North-West course to their intended destination. The AFM, whilst providing humanitarian aid as per its international obligations, eventually informed the competent Italian authorities accordingly, through the European Patrolling Network (EPN).

It must be noted and stressed that until such time as the AFM was in contact with these Eritreans, they were in a good state of health, and refused to be picked up by the AFM and brought in to Malta.

It is also pertinent to highlight that the AFM informed their Italian counterparts about the presence of the dinghy early enough on Thursday morning, and that enabled the Guardia di Finanzato send out a rescue launch to pick them up when the immigrants dinghy was still 10 nautical miles from Lampedusa. It is to be stressed that at no time did the AFM patrol boat lose contact with the dinghy from the moment it was intercepted until the immigrants were recovered by the Italian Guardia di Finanza.

Furthermore, it is to be noted that an aerial patrol spotted 8 corpses at sea spread over a large area astride the Maltese and Libyan search and rescue regions. The sighted corpses were noted to be in an advanced state of decomposition and, till present, none of the evidence related to these corpses points towards their having originated from the same boat as the five Eritreans who where recovered off Lampedusa by the Italian Guardia di Finanza.

The article by Pillay implies that when the dinghy was spotted by the AFM it was carrying the ‘scores of migrants’ and argues that the position taken by the AFM ‘falls woefully short of international human rights obligations and standards of conduct at sea.’ To date there is no evidence that there were other people on board the dinghy before it was spotted by the Maltese patrol. The only known facts are explained above. Anything else amounts to speculation.

It is also to be emphasised that over the last years 12,500 persons who were in distress were rescued and received in Malta – the smallest member of the European Union. All these immigrants did not have any intention of stopping in Malta, an island, and yet Malta accepted them in line with its international obligations.