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UN agency calls for action to save boat people off Malta

UN agency calls for action to save boat people off Malta

The United Nations refugee agency today called attention to the plight of over 50 people – including possibly a number of asylum-seekers – last seen aboard a boat off the south coast of Malta, and urged countries in the region to try to find them.

An aircraft of the Armed Forces of Malta spotted the boat on Monday some 80 nautical miles south of the Mediterranean island, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Aerial photographs showed the boat to be overcrowded and in distress, with the passengers seen trying to bail out water.

“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, adding that the number of women and children could not be confirmed.

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.”

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.