A rescue ship carrying nearly 400 migrants picked up another 400 from a wooden boat that started to sink overnight in the central Mediterranean Sea, a German charity said on Thursday.
Sea-Eye said a distress call from the crowded boat came from Malta’s search and rescue area, but Maltese authorities failed to respond.
The island nation’s search-and-rescue area covers a broad part of the central Mediterranean, including the waters around Italy’s southern-most island of Lampedusa and part of the corridor between Libya and Sicily.
Seeing "no other help was available to people in acute danger", the rescue ship Sea-Eye 4 travelled for about six hours to reach the rickety boat, which was taking on water, the Germany charity said.
Another ship, Rise Up, also responded but did not take any migrants.
“Several people were in the water without life jackets and had to be rescued directly from the sea,’’ said Sea-Eye, which operates the rescue ship along with the charity German Doctors. It said one person had to be resuscitated.
Sea-Eye 4 was on Friday off the coast of Sicily but had not received any message from Italy’s rescue co-ordination centre in Rome about where it would be allowed to dock.
The boat had pregnant women, children and people suffering from fuel burns being treated by the small group of doctors on board the ship, said Sea-Eye.
“A state of emergency is now in effect on the Sea-Eye 4,’’ Sea-Eye chairman Gorden Isler said.
“Any delay by the authorities endangers the health and lives of the rescued people and our crew.’’
Mr Isler accused Malta of shirking its duty and ignoring distress calls.
Meanwhile, the Italian coastguard said it rescued almost 200 migrants in two operations off Calabria, the southern “toe” of Italy’s mainland, on Wednesday night.
The coastguard said a sailboat with about 74 migrants, including 15 children, on board ran into difficulty in shallow water.
Elsewhere, coastguard personnel rescued about 120 passengers from a fishing boat that was in distress at sea in bad conditions.
Dr Christine Winkelmann, a German Doctors board member, said rescue crews in the dangerous central Mediterranean Sea migration route between North Africa and Southern Europe were “reaching the edge of their capacities.”
Migrant arrivals in Italy are up dramatically in 2021 compared to the previous two years, but still far below the highs of 120,000 to 180,000 recorded between 2014 and 2017.
So far this year, almost 54,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, up from more than 29,000 last year and fewer than 10,000 in 2019, Interior Ministry officials say.
More than a quarter are from Tunisia, which has a pact to accept those sent back from Italy, while many more arrive from Libya.
While most migrants taken to Sicily or its tiny islands after rescue in the central Mediterranean started out on boats launched from northern Africa, sailboats and other vessels carrying migrants have made it to the Italian mainland after sailing from Turkey.