ROME – If those among a group of 108 African and Middle Eastern migrants who thought that hijacking the mercantile ship that rescued them would be helpful, they were drastically mistaken. Not only did the terrifying ordeal end with heavily armed Maltese special forces storming the ship at dawn Thursday, but the act will almost surely guarantee that no civilian ship is going to go anywhere near a sinking migrant boat from this point forward.
The migrant rescue started out as a standard Mediterranean exercise that is by now very familiar in the heavily trafficked shipping lanes between the coasts of Libya and Europe. A rubber dinghy crammed with mostly Sub-Saharan men, women and children was taking on water off the coast of Libya after smugglers sent the boat out. Those on board made a distress call.
There were 108 people on the sinking boat, the distress caller said, among them 19 women and 12 children. The Libyan Coast guard cryptically responded that it was “out of service” so the Italian Coast Guard put out a general SOS call to the nearest mercantile ship in the area. The Turkish crew of the El Hibru 1 responded in accordance with the 1910 maritime law that governs the seas, which states quite clearly: “Every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel, her crew and passengers, to render assistance to everybody, even though an enemy, found at sea in danger of being lost.”
Then things went wrong for everyone. The Libyan Coast Guard finally answered the phone and told the Turks to turn around the bring the migrants back to Libya, which offered closest port although far from the safest.
Just five of the unarmed migrants revolted and overcame the authorities, according to a Maltese Armed Forces spokesman, who made it sound like a scene from the movie Captain Philips about Somali pirates off the west African coast. But the crew told reporters in Malta after they docked that all of the migrants protested being returned to Libya, with many of them threatening to jump overboard if the ship went back. Many of the rescued people would have likely been in Libyan detention centers for months or even years. Recent reports by UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders and the International Organization for Migration indicate that all migrants now spend time in both official and unofficial detention centers in Libya, which are equally accused of human rights violations.
“The captain repeatedly stated that he was not in control of the vessel and that he and his crew were being forced and threatened by a number of migrants to proceed to Malta,” the spokesman told The Daily Beast. “The ship crew had no choice but to comply.”
The ship then set sail for Malta, bypassing the Italian island of Lampedusa after Italy’s anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini threatened military action against the ship should it come within Italy’s waters. “These are not migrants in distress, they are pirates,” Salvini quipped on social media, telling them not to even think about docking on the tiny island.
“You will only see Italy through a telescope.”
At dawn, the Turkish tanker reached Maltese waters where it was met by heavily armed tactical anti-terrorism forces who boarded the ship and wrested it back from the migrants, who were unarmed. The ship was escorted with helicopters with snipers to the military port in the Maltese capital Valletta, where it was met by paddy wagons ready to take the hijackers to jail. When the ship entered the port just before 9 a.m. Thursday morning, camouflage-uniformed officers with heavy weaponry were standing guard over crouched migrants who looked like they didn't have much fight–or food–in them.
Only five migrants–all men—were taken into custody and named by Maltese officials as the masterminds of the somewhat bizarre ordeal. The remaining 103 were deemed true asylum seekers and will be processed in accordance with the so-called Dublin Act that mandates that they apply for asylum in the European country where they first set foot.
Salvini fumed in a tirade on social media, posting that they are “criminals” and should all be taken straight back to Libya. Never mind that a recent report shows that the conditions in Libyan detention centers deteriorated to beyond inhumane. A March 2019 report by the humanitarian group Women’s Refugee Commission claims that sex abuse is among the most common forms of torture for both men and women who travel through Libya. So much so, that the report quotes a source who has worked with those who have gone through the centers. “Everyone knows when a man says, ‘I’ve gone through Libya,’ it is a euphemism for rape,” the report states. “100 percent of women migrants [traveling the central Mediterranean route] experience sexual violence ... [while] 98 percent of men and boys coming from Sahel and through Libya are exposed to sexual violence.”
The high jacking happened one day after the European Union announced that its own border control program Sophia, which has rescued upwards of 10,000 people in recent years, would be docking its cutters and only conducting air patrols to try to scout for migrant boats trying to make the crossing. It remains unclear who they will call if they see one or who might even answer such a call if they are at risk of getting caught up in what is a political battle. Most mercantile ships turn off their transponders altogether when crossing through the waters where migrants are most frequently found, according to Marine Traffic. It is common to have a sea full of ships with none on the radar.
“We must look to these 108 people with an eye of humanity and understand that any actions taken yesterday were in self-defense against the deadly consequences forced upon them by Europe's inhumane border policy,” Johannes Bayer, chairman of the German rescue boat Sea-WAtch, which is one of the last-remaining NGO rescue boats at sea. “It is entirely legitimate for people found in distress at sea to reject being returned to Libya, the very place they know they will only continue to suffer the gravest of violations of their rights and the most degrading treatment.”