Alarm over dozens of missing migrants in Mediterranean
In this Sept. 17, 2019, file photo, migrants aboard a blue plastic boat are seen in the Mediterranean Sea. (AP File Photo)
The U.N. refugee agency told AFP it was "very worried" about the fate of what could be 85 migrants lost in the Mediterranean Sea.
Two German monitors of dangerous migrant crossings first reported spotting four boats in distress off the southern coast of Malta over the weekend.
The European Union's Frontex border guard and coast guard agency later told AFP that one of the four boats had safely reached Italy and another two were still at sea.
It said a fourth boat initially spotted on April 10 was unaccounted for.
"Frontex plane will fly again [on April 13] morning in search of the remaining boat," a spokesman told AFP.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it appeared that the missing boat had capsized.
"We are very worried," UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told AFP.
Frontex said it had notified the coast guard authorities of Italy and Malta about the boats at sea.
Neither country's border authorities commented on the reported shipwreck when contacted by AFP.
Germany's Sea-Watch International group showed the boats' geolocation -- including one boat marked "unknown GPS contact lost" -- on its official Twitter account.
Sea-Watch presumed that the lost boat was carrying 85 people.
It said the other three boats were carrying 173 migrants in all.
Germany's United4Rescue monitor of migrant crossings said in a statement that it was receiving the same reports and feared for the lives of "dozens".
Italy has long established itself as the primary European port of entry for migrants seeking refuge from Africa and the Middle East.
But the Mediterranean country shut down its ports and said it would quarantine any illegal migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Swiss-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the reports were "very worrying" but difficult to verify.
"In the absence of boats in the area, it is very difficult at the moment to confirm that there has been a shipwreck, or the number of victims involved," IOM Italy spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo told AFP.
"And unfortunately, from experience, we also think it is likely that there have been shipwrecks of which we are not aware."
Meanwhile, Italy on April 12 ordered migrants aboard a rescue ship off its coast to be quarantined on another vessel to test them for the coronavirus instead of allowing them to disembark.
The Alan Kurdi, run by the German non-governmental group Sea-Eye, is sailing in international waters off the western coast of Sicily.
The transport ministry said in a statement those on board will be transferred to another ship, screened by health authorities and quarantined on that ship.
This week the government closed ports to charity boats for the entire duration of the national health emergency over the coronavirus, a ban due to remain in effect until July 31.
The transport ministry statement said allowing the migrants to disembark would put too much pressure on already stretched health services in Sicily. It gave no details on the planned transfer, its timing or location.
After a relative lull in arrivals of boat migrants from Africa, numbers had started to pick up again in the first two months of the year, only to fall back sharply in March as Italy was hit by the epidemic.
However, smaller boats with migrants continue to arrive in Italy. A dinghy carrying about 100 migrants arrived at the Sicilian town of Pozzallo on April 12 morning, local authorities said.