UNHCR calls for action to save 53 boat people off Malta
VALETTA, Malta, May 23 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said Wednesday it was concerned about 53 people last seen aboard a boat off the south coast of Malta and urged governments in the region to do everything possible to trace the missing vessel and those on board, some of whom may be asylum seekers.
An aircraft of the Armed Forces of Malta spotted the boat on Monday some 80 nautical miles south of the Mediterranean island. Aerial photographs showed the boat to be overcrowded and in distress, with the passengers seen trying to bail out water with a jerry can.
"It was visually confirmed that there were 53 persons on the boat, some of whom were wearing life jackets," Major Ivan Consiglio of the Armed Forces of Malta said in a press statement. "How many of those on board were women and children could not be confirmed."
Major Consiglio added that the 10-metre-long boat was adrift with a seized engine and taking on water. After going back to base to refuel, the aircraft returned to the site but found no trace of the vessel. A patrol boat was dispatched to the area but could not find the boat or its passengers.
Earlier, some of those aboard the boat had managed to contact relatives in Italy by satellite phone and they in turn alerted the Italian maritime authorities to the precarious condition of the boatpeople. By Tuesday, however, all attempts to contact the passengers by phone had failed.
"We are in a state of anguish," an Eritrean woman who lives in the Italian city of Bologna and whose brother was on the boat, told UNHCR officials. "We feel abandoned and have received no information. We haven't even been told whether they are dead," she said.
According to the Maltese Armed Forces, the patrol boat came across a separate vessel carrying 25 people during its search late Monday. That boat capsized, and one of the passengers was lost at sea, Major Consiglio said. The 24 survivors were taken to Malta.