Malta heads off crisis with Italy migrant swap

ROME: Malta was on Friday (Jul 5) to end the latest standoff between a charity rescue ship in the Mediterranean and Italy’s far-right interior minister by sending a ship to take the migrants to shore.

A sailboat belonging to Italian charity Mediterranea on Thursday rescued 54 people including pregnant women and children off the Libyan coast, but Interior Minister Matteo Salvini vowed not to let them disembark.

Malta will send a coastguard vessel to pick up the migrants and take them to Valetta, the Maltese government said in a statement early Friday.

In return, Italy will take another 54 migrants from Malta as “part of an initiative that promotes a European spirit of cooperation and goodwill between Malta and Italy,” it said.

Salvini accuses NGO rescue vessels of helping smugglers and said they should sail for Valetta after 13 “vulnerable” people were taken from the Alex to Italy’s southern island of Lampedusa, leaving 41 on board.

15 HOURS SAILING

“In these conditions it is impossible to face 15 hours of sailing. We are waiting for Italian or Maltese naval arrangements to take these people on board,” Mediterranea’s Alessandra Sciurba said on Twitter.

She said that while Italy had taken families and pregnant women from the small vessel, “all non-accompanied minors remain on board, including an 11-year-old.”

Photographs showed the migrants and asylum-seekers seeking shelter from the sun under survival blankets on the narrow deck of the 18-metre (59-foot) sailboat.

Friday night, Mediterranea, which consists mainly of left-wing activists, said neither Malta nor Italy had sent a vessel to pick up the rescued migrants.

The sailboat Alex is currently in international waters off Italy’s Lampedusa island, after Salvini signed a decree forbidding them to approach.

Italian authorities on Lampedusa last week seized a vessel belonging to German aid group Sea-Watch and arrested its captain for unauthorised entry to port with dozens of rescued migrants on board.

Despite Salvini’s apparent firmness about closing Italian ports to migrants, at least 69 migrants and asylum-seekers have arrived by boat in Lampedusa over the last 24 hours, Italian media reported, some rescued by Italian authorities.

Another German migrant rescue charity, Sea-Eye, said late Friday its vessel “Alan Kurdi” was headed for Lampedusa after rescuing 65 people from an overloaded rubber boat in international waters off the Libyan coast.

The blue dinghy lacked sufficient drinking water for the 64 men and one woman, and there was no satellite phone or navigation aid on board, the group said in a statement.

NO REPLY

Sea-Eye said it had no reply from Libyan, Italian or Maltese authorities.

Another makeshift vessel carrying 86 people across the Mediterranean from Libya sank off the Tunisian coast on Wednesday, with all but three of them missing or dead.

The Italian judge in last week’s Sea-Watch case ruled that neither Libya nor Tunisia were safe countries for migrants.

Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi, has long been a major transit route for migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, desperate to reach Europe.

On Tuesday night, 53 migrants were killed in an air strike on their detention centre in a Tripoli suburb.

The UN’s special envoy on migration in the Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, has accused the EU of “blindness” on the plight of those stuck in Libya and urged a policy rethink.