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It took days to help a dangerously overcrowded boat adrift in the Mediterranean. Why?

"The people have no food, water and fuel left. The boat is stationary and highly overcrowded," read a message to potential rescuers in nearby Malta.
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It was 12:50 a.m. when Maltese authorities were first told that a rickety blue-and-white fishing vessel carrying about 400 migrants was in distress off the island nation’s coast. 

“Our hotline was alarmed by a distress call from a boat at sea,” read the April 9 email to Malta Rescue Coordination Center sent by Alarm Phone, an unofficial hotline for migrants trying to reach Europe by crossing the treacherous Mediterranean Sea.

The email from Alarm Phone, which by then had already been contacted by several migrants onboard, continued: “People have been at sea for over three days and are in distress. The people on the boat are urgently asking for help.”

Passengers told Alarm Phone that the ship’s captain had abandoned the boat. 

“Three people have died. The boat is at sea for three days. The people have no food, water and fuel left. The boat is stationary and highly overcrowded. Immediate assistance is required,” the email read.

“The engine stopped working completely, the situation is bad, the children are crying. ... Water entered the underneath deck.”

An unnamed woman making distress call

No rescue was launched, and the boat was left to drift for three more days, even as Maltese authorities received dozens of emails and calls from its occupants and aid organizations begging for help, emails and transcripts of conversations obtained by NBC News show.

So the passengers aboard the vessel, which first came to Alarm Phone’s notice when it was on the edge of the country’s huge search and rescue zone, drifted through Maltese waters until it finally entered Italian waters. 

NBC News was unable to confirm that at least three people on the overcrowded fishing boat died.

The vessel’s fraught journey is part of a persistent problem in the Mediterranean: the apparent flouting of international maritime law by European states, which sometimes refuse to rescue migrant ships in distress. 

While the obligation of ships to go to the aid of vessels in distress is enshrined in tradition and in international treaties, as a signatory of the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, Malta had a specific legal obligation to intervene in this case, said Ainhoa Velasco, an expert of international maritime law at the University of Southampton in the U.K.

Malta is required to “use search and rescue units and other available facilities” to assist those in distress and to “coordinate search and rescue operations with those of neighboring states,” Velasco said. Still, it has rejected 2004 amendments explicitly stipulating that states provide assistance to “disembarking persons found in distress at sea.”

Clues to Malta’s possible reluctance to take in migrants are in its location and size. The densely populated island north and east of the Libyan coast and about 100 miles south of the Italian island of Sicily has taken in the fewest migrants of the European Union’s 27 countries — just 45 asylum-seekers in all of 2022. With a population similar to that of Wyoming, at around half-million people, Malta ranks 11th in population per capita in the E.U. 

Meanwhile, the number of people trying to get to Europe via the Mediterranean is growing. Last year, more than 250,000 set sail from Turkey and the northern coast of Africa to seek asylum or to migrate to Europe, the most since 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. 

So far this year, 1,090 migrants have disappeared during the crossing, IOM data shows. That compares to 2,366 who vanished in all of 2022 and 2,062 in 2021. 

Malta’s search and rescue zone lies in the path of tens of thousands of people fleeing economic, political and social hardship every year. The vast area is one of 13 such zones in the world’s oceans, as defined in the 1979 convention. It covers 100,000 square miles, nearly 800 times Malta’s size. 

While it is a huge area to police, Malta has refused to hand over some of it to Italy, as Italian politicians have suggested. 

‘Children are crying’

“The engine stopped working completely, the situation is bad, the children are crying,” an unnamed woman says in a distress call to Alarm Phone, according to a transcript. The call was received about 12 hours after the first email to the Malta Rescue Coordination Center, the charity said. “Water entered the underneath deck,” the woman also says.

The recorded call was one of 27 from passengers aboard the ship that Alarm Phone says it received in the three days it spent tracking the vessel. NBC News has received transcripts of 13 of the calls, which were mostly in Arabic but also in English.

Alarm Phone, which operates with volunteers in Europe and Africa who communicate with migrants crossing the Mediterranean, said it sent over 21 emails to Maltese authorities but got no response. Maltese authorities never responded and hung up on their calls, the group said.

Sea-Watch, a German nongovernmental organization that conducts search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea, deployed its reconnaissance aircraft at 2 p.m. Central European Daylight Time (8 a.m. ET) on April 9. It located the vessel in international waters between Greece and Malta, heading slowly toward Italy.  

An image made available on May 30, 2023, shows a fishing boat in the Central Mediterranean Sea allegedly carrying migrants.
Maltese authorities this year returned this fishing boat loaded with hundreds of migrants to Libya, where many were subsequently imprisoned, four rescue groups say.Consolidated Rescue Group / via AP

NBC News was not able to confirm the accounts given to Alarm Phone and Sea-Watch. Emails showed Maltese officials’ exchanging emails with Sea-Watch and two nearby merchant oil tankers: Malta-registered FMT URLA and Liberia-registered Pericles. The ships’ management did not respond to requests for comment. It is customary for vessels that spot ships in distress to wait for instructions from coordination centers in charge of areas before they initiate any rescue efforts.

Alarm Phone said that after it received multiple emergency calls from people onboard, it sent its first alert to rescue centers in Malta, Greece and Italy at 12:50 a.m. and also to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Frontex did not respond to requests for comment.

“People are in distress,” Alarm Phone said in its first email to the Malta Rescue Coordination Center. “We urgently ask you to start a rescue operation!”

Five hours later, Alarm Phone sent an email to the Maltese coast guard saying the ship did not have a captain and had run out of drinking water and food.

“One of the three people who jumped overboard and, pulled by a rope, is unconscious,” a woman says in a separate distress call, according to a transcript. Two children can be heard crying in the background in another call from April 9. 

“Yes, we are investigating and working on this case,” the unnamed duty officer of the Maltese Rescue Coordination Center said in a call heard by NBC News, when Sea-Watch contacted Malta at 3:23 p.m. the same day.

Shortly later, at 4 p.m., Alarm Phone wrote: “One person is unconscious. The engine is no longer functional.” 

Meanwhile, the Sea-Watch reconnaissance aircraft spotted the oil tankers FMT URLA and Pericles, relayed the migrant ship’s location to them and reminded personnel of their obligation to help under international law.

According to the emails given to NBC News, both ships refused, saying Malta had instructed them to only provide supplies. 

“RCC Malta advised us to proceed to its position and advised us to supply fuel to the fishing boat. There is no advice regarding rescue,” FMT URLA radioed the Sea-Watch aircraft at 3:11 p.m. on April 9. “Can you just contact now to RCC Malta? Please! Please! Please!” it said, according to a call recording between the ship and Sea-Watch.

Instead of sending aid or helping evacuate the fishing vessel, Malta instructed the vessels in an email sent to Pericles at around 5 p.m. to “stand by and await further instructions.” 

Pericles’ captain told Sea-Watch around 9 p.m. that Malta had strictly instructed the ship to report only to it.

So the overcrowded boat was left in the high seas without a captain and with a malfunctioning engine, making steering nearly impossible, according to transcripts of distress messages purportedly received by Alarm Phone. Water flooded the lower deck and people rushed to the top, drenched and facing the brunt of the chilling wind.

“The children shiver with cold,” a woman said at around 8 p.m. As the hours passed, the boat continued to drift without a rescue attempt’s being launched.

The Armed Forces of Malta said in a statement in response to a request for comment: “Written communication received by the AFM from the ship captain providing duty of care confirms that no rescue was requested by the people on board.” It was not clear which ship captain the statement was referring to, and representatives from Malta did not respond to several requests for follow-up comment.

Malta’s, FMT URLA’s and Pericles’ responses fell far short of what was required of them, Velasco said.

“Supplying fresh water or offering fuel in those circumstances is clearly insufficient and inadequate,” she said.

Eventually, on April 12, when the ship drifted into Italian waters, Italy’s coast guard dispatched rescue vessels and brought the starving migrants to its shores.