In the news: COVID-19 port closures leave migrants stranded at sea

With Italy and Malta closing their ports due to the coronavirus, NGO rescue ships and migrant vessels don’t know which way to turn.

Migrants on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea
Migrants on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea on 29 January 2016. (callmonikm/Flickr)

Migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa have been left stranded on the Mediterranean Sea after Italy and Malta closed their ports due to public health reasons amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Alarm Phone, which acts as a hotline for refugees and migrants in distress on the Mediterranean, said Monday that it hadn’t heard from one of three boats that requested assistance in Malta’s search and rescue zone. When Alarm Phone reached out to the Maltese authorities, they were frequently placed on hold or the line disconnected, according to the hotline’s Maurice Stierl. 

The boat that remains in contact, carrying 47 people, has been at sea for nearly four days, Stierl said. The Aita Mari, a rescue ship run by the Spanish NGO Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario, was diverted in an attempt to reach them, but it was only authorised to provide life vests, food, and water. The NGO wrote on Twitter that the Maltese authorities were not answering their calls for further instructions.

The third migrant vessel, carrying between 71 and 77 people, has landed in Ragusa, Italy, according to Alarm Phone.

Meanwhile, the Alan Kurdi – a rescue ship run by the German charity Sea-Eye – has been in Italian waters for a week, but has been prevented from docking. The ship has 150 people aboard.

At least 16,000 migrants and refugees are estimated to have drowned in the Central Mediterranean – the most frequented migration route from Libya to Italy – since 2014.

– Izzy Ellis

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