Malta rescued another 140 migrants last week and placed them on tourist boats; there are now around 300 migrants waiting on chartered vessels offshore. While Malta is defending its course, human rights watchdogs have been calling on Malta and other EU states to find a way to bring the migrants to land.
European Union member state Malta on Friday rescued a group of 140 migrants from a sinking dinghy but refused to bring them to land. Instead, authorities held the migrants on a chartered tourist harbor cruise boat just outside territorial waters.
The rescue was conducted by a Maltese patrol boat in the early hours of Friday after the dinghy drifted into Malta's search and rescue (SAR) zone.
On Friday afternoon, the migrants were transferred to the tourist boat. They join another two tourist boats chartered for the same purpose by the government more than three weeks ago and holding another 160 migrants about 30 nautical miles off the Maltese coast.
Malta has been reluctant to accept the migrants amid the global coronavirus outbreak, as the borders of the island nation remain closed under lockdown measures. It also accused other EU nations of having failed to keep their promises to take in migrants already brought to the island.
Prime Minister Robert Abela has also told the European Union more than once that since Malta's airport and harbors have been closed to tourists, they will not be open to migrants.
On Friday, however, the government confirmed that a group of 19 have been brought to Malta for humanitarian reasons. The group including children, their parents and pregnant women had been among the newly rescued migrants.
Criticism from human rights watchdogs
Also on Friday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on Malta and other EU states to find a way to bring the some 160 migrants on board the two private vessels to dry land.
"States must continue to disembark people rescued at sea, in line with international maritime law obligations and ensure access to asylum and humanitarian assistance," the statement read.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) joined the call for solidarity by calling on Malta to allow the remaining migrants to get off the vessels and file for asylum if they wish to do so.
'We are left alone'
In a statement, Maltese Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo on Thursday said Malta's migration centers are holding twice the number of people they were designed for. He also alleged that Malta was at the mercy of people smugglers.
"We want to protect the rights of people seeking protection, but we can only do so much," Bartolo said, referring to the EU. "We are being left alone. Words of sympathy are not enough, we need practical help."
According to Bartolo, only 8% of migrant arrivals had been distributed to the EU over the years. Of 1,500 this year, only France and Portugal had pledged to take migrants, just 36.
'Cannot become EU's crisis center'
While Malta was protecting an EU external border, Bartolo said, it "cannot become the European Union's crisis center."
He also warned that the situation in Libya was worsening and the migration problem, therefore, was likely to also worsen over the coming months.
On May 8, Malta pressed its demand for EU migration action by warning that it will vote to freeze financing for a Mediterranean Sea naval mission aiming to prevent the flow of weapons into Libya.
Battle for Operation Irini
It also told the EU that it would no longer commit a landing party to form part of the mission, known as Operation Irini. The mission, which replaced Operation Sophia, was launched last month.
Josep Borrell, the EU foreign minister, consequently urged Malta to stop blocking Operation Irini and expressed hope that Malta would rejoin the operation. Borrell also said Irini was needed to stabilize Libya and stop the "wave" of migrants from Africa.
Mediterranean states like Malta, Italy and Greece have been dealing with migrant sea arrivals almost daily in recent years. Governments rescue missions -- alongside NGOs -- have also prevented many tragic deaths in the Mediterranean. However, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly all rescue missions in the Mediterranean had to be stopped, with some boats even being impounded.
This leaves migrants at greater risk of drowning at sea if they still decide to embark on dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean, with rescue operations being practically non-existent at the current time.
Last week, a British and an Italian daily published an investigation that accuses Malta's coast guard of pushing away and sending to Italy around 100 migrants stranded at sea in Maltese territorial waters. If true, the incident, which allegedly took place in mid-April, is a violation of international law.
With material from Reuters