Italy on Friday urged Malta to take in a ship carrying more than 200 rescued migrants as the new government pressures European partners to shoulder more of the burden of immigration from North Africa.
The Dutch-flagged ship run by the German charity Mission Lifeline was seeking a nearby European dock, a day after anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the vessel should take the migrants to the Netherlands.
Earlier this month, Salvini pledged to no longer let charity ships bring rescued migrants to Italy, leaving the Gibraltar-flagged Aquarius stranded at sea for days with more than 600 migrants on board until Spain offered them safe haven. Malta also refused to take in the Aquarius.
“For the safety of the crew and those rescued we humanly and politically ask Malta to finally open one of its ports, and then seize the ship and its crew,” Salvini said in Siena, Italy.
Malta, a small island nation, has not taken in large numbers of people rescued at sea, while Italyhas seen 650,000 arrivals since 2014.
On Friday, Malta had not received a call for help from the ship, Lifeline, or from Italy‘s coastguard, Maltese government sources said. Lifeline was sailing about half way between Tripoli and Malta early on Friday.
“Malta cannot back out,” Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who oversees the coastguard, said. The European Union’s border control agency Frontex “will make an official request to Malta to open its ports”, he said.
On Thursday, Toninelli said the Italian coastguard would pick up the 224 migrants, including 14 women and four small children, from Lifeline because it was too dangerous for the 32-metre vessel to travel to the Netherlands with so many on board.
He said the coastguard would escort Lifeline to an Italian port, where it would be impounded pending an investigation into its flag status after the Dutch government denied responsibility for the vessel.
Lifeline later published its Dutch registration papers online.
“There is no need for the Italian government to seize the ship for investigations,” spokesman Axel Steier said in a statement.
“No port of safety was assigned so far,” Steier added. “We call out to the European community, might it be on national or local level, to help find a solution.”
While the number of sea arrivals to Italy has dropped dramatically this year – more than 77 per cent from last year – the new government has thrust immigration to the top of the EU’s agenda ahead of a summit of leaders next week.
Italy‘s government, sworn in earlier this month after promising to raise its voice on immigration in Brussels, has sparred with France, Malta and Germany ahead of the meeting.
An SWG poll this week showed two-thirds of Italians agree humanitarian boats should not be allowed in the country’s ports.
But off the Libyan coast, where people smugglers operate with impunity, the UN refugee agency said an estimated 220 migrants drowned this week. The death toll in the central Mediterranean this year is nearing 1,000, the UNHCR said.