Paris/Valletta – Migrants stranded at sea after Italy and Malta refused docking rights to a rescue ship will be taken in by four EU states, the Maltese government said on Tuesday.
Portugal said it would take in 10 of the migrants picked up in two separate rescues by charity ship the Aquarius. France, Spain and Germany will take in the others, Valletta said.
European efforts to resolve the crisis
The Maltese government said that the 58 rescuees would be transferred at sea to a Maltese “asset” but none of them would stay in Malta.
The Aquarius itself, operated by charity SOS-Mediterranee aided by Doctors without Borders (MSF), will then return to the French port of Marseille, where SOS-Mediterranee is based, the charity said.
The ship’s longer-term fate remains unclear. Flag state Panama said at the weekend that it was removing the vessel from its shipping register.
Malta and Italy previously refused docking rights to the Aquarius – the only privately run rescue vessel now operating in the region.
SOS-Mediterranee said on Monday that the ship would head to Marseille, but French ministers dismissed its request to be allowed disembark the rescuees, picked up from small boats in international waters off the Libyan coast, at Marseille.
“There are European rules [that migrant rescue boats] must head for the nearest European coast,” Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told RMC radio. “The port of Marseille is not the closest port.”
A Maltese government statement added: “Considering the fact that the Aquarius has been deflagged, the vessel will proceed to its home port to rectify its stateless position.”
SOS-Mediterranee has accused Italy, which barred rescue vessels from its ports earlier this year, of putting pressure on flag states. Rome denies that.
Some 1,260 migrants have died on the central Mediterranean route – essentially from Libya to Italy and Malta – so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Moves by European governments to assist the Libyan coast guard in intercepting people-smugglers’ boats have been partly credited with a massive drop in the numbers crossing via the route – at the cost of trapping migrants in Libya, where they risk arbitrary detention and various abuses.
Attempted crossings so far in 2018 are 38,140, compared to more than 121,000 last year.
But rescue charities say European obstruction and harassment of their vessels have played a part in making the crossing more deadly than before for those who attempt it: deaths are also down, but not at the same rate.