The Independent reports about this recent incident caused by the Maltese autorities:
By Peter Popham in Rome
Published: 28 May 2007
For three days and three nights, these African migrants clung desperately to life. Their means of survival is a tuna net, being towed across the Mediterranean by a Maltese tug that refused to take them on board after their frail boat sank.
Malta and Libya, where they had embarked on their perilous journey, washed their hands of them. Eventually, they were rescued by the Italian navy.
The astonishing picture shows them hanging on to the buoys that support the narrow runway that runs around the top of the net. They had had practically nothing to eat or drink.
Last night, on the island of Lampedusa, the 27 young men - from Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Sudan and other countries - told of their ordeal. As their flimsy boat from Libya floundered adrift for six days, two fishing boats failed to rescue them. On Wednesday, the Maltese boat, the Budafel allowed them to mount the walkway but refused to have them on board.
This is the latest snapshot from the killing seas of the southern Mediterranean, the stretch of water at the European Union's southern gate that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says "has become like the Wild West, where human life has no value any more and people are left to their fate".
On Friday, The Independent reported how a Maltese plane photographed a crazily overloaded boat in this area carrying 53 Eritreans, several of whom telephoned desperate pleas for help to relatives in London, Italy and Malta. The boat disappeared with all hands before anything was done to save them. They died, not because help was unavailable, but because no-one wanted to do anything. Malta is full up. Libya, where these voyages begin, takes no responsibility. One might think that the EU's new frontiers agency, Frontex, had a part to play. But its "rapid response team" remains on the drawing board.
Frontex is expected to begin joint patrols in the Mediterranean shortly, following a brief pilot programme last year. But the critical stretch between Malta and Libya is to be controlled by Malta and Greece, and the hard-nosed attitude of the Maltese in recent weeks does not inspire optimism.
The Maltese captain of the Budafel refused to land the men, he later explained, because he had $1m-worth of tuna in the pen. If he had taken them to Malta, the trip would have taken 12 days, given the tug's slow speed. There, he would have found himself in the middle of a diplomatic wrangle. "I couldn't take the risk of losing this catch," he said.
The captain informed the Maltese authorities. The Maltese phoned the Libyans - the Africans were about 60 miles from the Libyan coast, within Libya's area of competence for search and rescue. Libya said they would send a helicopter to the spot and throw down a life raft. Malta - by this point Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had become directly involved - said that was unacceptable. They gave Malta's armed forces the task of persuading the Libyans to pick the men up.
The 27 had by this point spent three days and nights standing on the walkway, which is 18 inches wide. The Budafel's captain said he wouldn't mind being on the walkway for an hour. Any longer - under the fierce sun, or in the chill of the night - no thanks.
The Libyan government eventually sent a fax saying they would pick the men up. But no help arrived. The Maltese steadfastly refused to take the initiative. In the past five days, 157 illegal immigrants have come ashore on the Maltese coast. The small island is full to capacity. The impasse continued all Saturday.
By a stroke of luck an Italian navy vessel, Orione, was not far away: last week Libya had given Italy permission to search for the 53 doomed Eritreans, and it was still in the area, still searching.
The Italian navy dispatched first a plane and then the Orione. By 9pm on Saturday night, after more than 70 hours clinging to the pen, they were on their way to Sicily. Last night, they were reported to be weak and exhausted but out of danger. For them it's a happy ending. But in the past five days, sources in Malta say four other boats have gone down, with the loss of about 120 lives. As Laura Boldrini of the UNHCR puts it, "setting off across the Mediterranean in these boats is a game of Russian roulette".
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa. The passage from west Africa to the Canary Islands is no less perilous. In Spain, where shocking images of a dozen dead would-be migrants in their boat were published in newspapers last week, estimates of the total number of dead run as high as 7,000.
"Governments must encourage fishermen to save human life," says Laura Boldrini. "Now they fear that if they help, they can be stuck for days and weeks. But international maritime law says governments have a duty to allow the speedy disembarkation of people rescued at sea. We say, let's save human lives first. This must be the priority for all the parties involved."