Migrants and refugees on March 27 hijacked Elhiblu 1, a ship with a crew that rescued 108 people from Libyan waters that same day.
The boat was supposed to return the 108 people to Libya’s capital Tripoli. Six nautical miles from the port, Elhiblu 1 suddenly changed its course and started toward Italy. The boat was halfway to Malta by Wednesday evening.
“We received reports of a pirated ship heading toward Malta or Lampedusa and we’re monitoring the situation,” a Maltese coast guard spokesman told French news outlet Agence France-Presse.
According to Al Jazeera, a Maltese military official told local media the hijacked ship would not be allowed to enter the country’s waters.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has established and maintained a strict immigration policy since he has been in office and has closed Italy’s ports to all migrants and refugees. According to Reuters, Salvini said, “These are not migrants in distress; they are pirates. They will only see Italy through a telescope.”
“I tell the pirates, forget Italy,” Salvini continued in a Facebook video. “This is the clearest demonstration that it is not a rescue operation but a criminal traffic of human beings who even arrive at hijacking a private vessel. It is an act of criminality or organized crime. Italian waters are off-limits to criminals.”
Maltese military forces made contact with the captain of Elhiblu 1 when the ship was 30 nautical miles from the island nation. According to the armed forces, the captain told them “he and his crew were being forced and threatened by a number of migrants to proceed to Malta.”
Maltese forces intercepted and returned control of the vessel to the captain. Elhiblu 1 was then escorted back to Malta where several authorities boarded the boat. Four migrants were led off the ship in handcuffs, according to NBC.
The UN believes migrants and refugees in Libya experience human trafficking, kidnapping, torture and rape. The country is one of the main points of exit for people trying to leave North Africa for Europe.
Recently, the EU has announced they will suspend Operation Sophia, a patrol system that helps rescue migrants and refugees and relocate them to safer regions in Europe. The operation has saved thousands of lives over several years, but Italy no longer is willing to receive the people and have officially closed their ports to any refugees, making relocation extremely difficult for the EU.
Associate Director at Human Rights Watch, Judith Sunderland, tweeted on March 27, “Operation Sophia will now only provide aerial surveillance and support for the Libyan coast guard. This means more interceptions by Libyan forces and return of women, men and children to nightmarish conditions and treatment in Libya.”