Italy or Malta must let stranded migrants land 'immediately'

Monday, 11 Jun, 2018

European Union law requires asylum seekers register in the first safe country they reach, but frontline countries such as Italy and Malta say the burden needs to be shared out across the bloc. "This could compromise all the work and cooperation between us over the past few years".

The MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres, has been told by Italian authorities to stand by in its current position, 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta.

Italy's new interior minister Matteo Salvini had threatened to close access to Italian ports for migrant rescue ships if Malta refused to take the migrants on board.

SOS Mediterranee said the passengers on its ship, the Aquarius, included 400 people who were picked up by the Italian navy, the country's coastguard and private cargo ships and transferred. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini tweeted Sunday that from now on, "Italy, too, begins to say NO to the trafficking of human beings". That stance "confirms the latest unwillingness of Malta and, thus, of Europe, to intervene and take care of the emergency".

Some 629 people, including pregnant women and scores of children, were saved by SOS Mediterranean on Saturday and are stuck aboard the French NGO's ship Aquarius, which is now between Malta and Sicily waiting for a secure port. "Italy has stopped bowing its head and obeying, this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO. #chiudiamoiporti (#weareclosingtheports)", Salvini wrote on Twitter, as quoted by the Ansa news agency.

"Our objective is the disembarkation in a port of safety of the 629 people now on board the Aquarius - some we rescued yesterday night in hard conditions", she was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"Malta is respecting global rules and, therefore, can't let Aquarius dock at its port". It added that the Aquarius "is still waiting for definitive instructions regarding the port of safety".

Charity boats operating off the Libyan coast have played an increasingly important role in rescuing migrants, who often put to sea in flimsy inflatable boats not designed for the open ocean.

More than 600,000 migrants and refugees have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years.

This frame of a video taken by the Italian Coast Guard on January 6, 2018, in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya, shows migrants being rescued from dinghies as they try to cross to Italy.

One boat found Sunday was carrying four bodies along with 49 migrants.

Human rights groups oppose returning rescued migrants to Libya, where many are held in inhumane conditions, poorly fed and often forced to do slave labor.

The United Nations estimates at least 500 people have died in 2018 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, following more than 2,800 fatalities previous year.