Four aid groups accused Malta, on Wednesday, of breaking international law by ordering a merchant ship to take rescued migrants to Egypt, when Malta itself was much closer and safer, Reuters reports.
Malta breached part of the 1951 Geneva Convention which says that States should not expel or return a person "to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened", according to the NGOs Alarm Phone, Mediterranea Saving Humans, Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Sea-Watch.
The Maltese government has not responded to questions about the case.
Malta has, in the past, been accused by NGOs of organising the return of migrants to Libya but Prime Minister, Robert Abela, says the island respects its primary duty not to let anyone die at sea.
The NGOs said the incident happened on 26 September, when 23 migrants who had been at sea in a small boat for four days, were rescued by the merchant vessel, Shimanami Queen.
"Malta Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) instructed merchant vessels in the immediate vicinity of the boat in distress either to continue their voyage or merely to stay on standby, therefore delaying the rescue significantly … and putting lives at risk," the NGOs said.
Following the rescue, RCC Malta instructed the Shimanami Queen to take the rescued people to Egypt, 760 nautical miles away, when both Malta and Italy were closer, at 159 and 146 nautical miles respectively, they added.
"As organisations engaging in SAR (search and rescue) activities at sea, we denounce the forcible transfer of these 23 people to Egypt and call for consequences to Malta's blatant violations of maritime and international law," the NGOs said.