Migrants Adrift Off Malta Called for Help. Then They Waited. And Waited.

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The rubber dinghy packed tight with more that 95 people was bobbing helplessly in the Mediterranean on Sunday when the passengers issued a distress call, but help would not come anytime soon.

In the end, it took more than 33 hours — and the pressure of activists and nongovernmental groups — before the Maltese authorities launched a rescue operation.

All onboard were eventually brought to shore, but the incident, the latest of dozens like it in recent weeks, has raised questions about the risk to human life posed by policies intended to deter migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.

The dinghy carrying the migrants, who were said to be from Eritrea, was one of dozens of vessels left adrift in the central Mediterranean in recent months, said Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.

“The recurring delays that we are witnessing in rescuing people this year are unacceptable,” Mr. Di Giacomo said in a phone interview. “They put people’s lives at risk. These boats are unfit to sail; they can go down any time.”

The migrants on the overcrowded dinghy Sunday contacted Alarm Phone, a watchdog group that often acts as first point of call for migrants adrift in the Mediterranean. The group says it alerted the authorities — but hours later, there was still no rescue in sight.

“A merchant vessel is monitoring the situation but not providing assistance,” Alarm Phone wrote in a post on Twitter on Monday morning. “How long will the people be left suffering & at risk of drowning? How long can they survive?”

Hours later, the International Organization for Migration echoed the concern.

“Around 95 migrants are still floating in the Central Mediterranean at risk of drowning, after attempting to flee Libya,” it said.

Not until Monday afternoon did the armed forces of Malta reportedly bring the group to shore.

Activists have lamented the scarcity of independent rescue ships in the central Mediterranean, which has become a major crossing for migrants escaping war-torn Libya, and is one of the world’s most dangerous passages.

Last week, Italy’s Coast Guard blocked the last ship operating for the migrant rescue organization SOS Mediterranée, citing administrative failures. In a statement, the organization said that the move was “aimed at impeding our lifesaving work,” and at discouraging other groups from doing the same. The Italian authorities also detained the vessel of another aid group, the Sea-Watch 3.

These organizations have carried out the bulk of rescue operations in the Mediterranean in recent years since, particularly after Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya in 2017 that effectively delegated most of the operations to the Libyan Coast Guard.

In recent years, thousands of migrants have died while attempting the crossing. Two-hundred and seventy have drowned since January alone.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has made the situation still more complicated. Italy and Malta have both declared their ports not safe for migrants because of the public health threat.

Malta, a tiny island nation, has been on the front line of the migration route for years. Its government has long been accused by migrant advocates of responding slowly — or not at all — to distress calls coming from their large search and rescue zone, and of allowing the Libyan Coast Guard to take back migrants who had already made it into their area of responsibility.

Now, with the onset of the virus, Malta says it is too overwhelmed to do rescues.

But it did secretly dispatch a fleet of private vessels in April to intercept migrants and return them by force to Libya, according to information provided by the captain of one of the boats, a senior commander in the Libyan Coast Guard, and a former Maltese official involved in the episode, who spoke to The New York Times earlier this year.

That same month, 12 migrants died in a shipwreck that occurred after their rubber boat had been left adrift for days. The 51 survivors were returned to Tripoli.

In Italy, processing procedures for migrants who arrive by boat have become lengthier because of the pandemic, and the government has been struggling to find places to quarantine migrants.

Last week, Matteo Salvini, a far-right politician and former deputy prime minister, visited the island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, where he drew on the mounting anger of the mayor.

“This is not immigration, it’s chaos,” Mr. Salvini said in a video posted on his Facebook account. “It’s 800 people in a hot spot that can accommodate 90 people.”

“They are on the roof, they are everywhere,” he said.

Small wooden boats carrying migrants from Tunisia have landed on the shores of Lampedusa for years. But the number of migrant arrivals this year are far smaller than in the past.

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