ROME – The Armed Forces of Malta took control on Thursday of a merchant ship overpowered a day earlier by migrants rescued by the vessel who were opposing being returned to Libya, a military spokesperson told EFE.
The ship, named El Hiblu I, arrived at Boiler Wharf in Malta early Thursday morning, Malta Today reported.
It had rescued 108 people – including many children and women – who were traveling on a boat in poor conditions near the coast of Libya.
Soon after the rescue, the captain communicated that he was no longer in control of the ship and the migrants were forcing him and his crew to proceed to Malta, according to an AFM statement.
Reports say the migrants hijacked the ship after learning they were being taken back to Libya.
The ship, which had a Turkish crew and Palau flag, headed towards Malta during the night before Maltese troops boarded and directed it towards the island.
It is not known how many migrants were involved, although it is believed to be a small group, according to media reports.
This was the first reported hijacking of a ship by migrants to avoid being returned to Libya and a probe into the events was expected to start immediately after the ship reached the shore.
Mediterranea Saving Humans, a nonprofit working for migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, appealed for the 108 on the ship to be received as asylum seekers as they had escaped “Libyan concentration camps,” referring to the detention centers set up in the North African country for refugees.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant right-wing Northern League party, called the migrants “pirates” who would not be allowed to enter the country.
“They are not shipwrecked, but pirates. They will only see Italy through a telescope,” said Salvini.
According to a United Nations report released in January, the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean dropped in 2018, but the death rate increased.
Although the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean was much lower – with 139,000 in 2018 in contrast to the 172,323 arrivals in 2017 – the journey became much more perilous, with one person dying for every 14 people that arrived safely, a vast increase on the 2017 statistic of one death for every 38 arrivals.