Migrant ship docks in Malta after standoff with Italy

Mission Lifeline vessel carrying 230 rescuees had been refused entry to Italian ports

 

A humanitarian ship that has had about 230 rescued migrants on board for almost a week docked in Malta on Wednesday, ending a standoff with Italy, which had refused to let the ship into its ports.

Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat said seven EU countries had offered to share the burden of the migrants with Malta. The Lifeline ship, operated by German charity Mission Lifeline, arrived at about 5.40pm GMT.

“Lifeline will be granted permission to enter a Maltese port, where procedures for identification, ascertaining their asylum eligibility, and distribution to other member states will start immediately,” Mr Muscat told reporters earlier on Wednesday.

“The Maltese government took the lead on a solution before the situation escalated to a humanitarian crisis,” he added, emphasising, however, that the small island nation was not legally bound to take in the vessel.

The Lifeline is the second charity ship carrying migrants that Italy has shut out of its ports this month, after the new interior minister Matteo Salvini said private rescue vessels would no longer be welcome because they “cannot dictate Italy’s immigration policy”.

Mr Muscat said that permitting the ship to dock in Malta was a one-time, or “ad-hoc”, resolution to the standoff. While 650,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea since 2014, Malta has allowed in only those needing urgent medical care.

The migration crisis has become an urgent political issue across the EU in recent weeks, since the new Italian government took power earlier this month and German chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition split over the issue.

An EU leaders’ summit that will discuss the bloc’s common framework for managing migration will be held in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

“We are very proud that the crew rescued 234 people,” Lifeline spokesman Axel Steier said as the ship approached Valletta harbour, thanking Malta for taking it in. “This situation is special because the crew was out there for a long time and it’s not normal.”

Germany was not among the countries that agreed to take in some of the migrants on the Lifeline.

The Republic, Italy, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal were the nations who “agreed to collaborate to offer a European solution”, a statement from Mr Muscat’s office said.

‘Great victory’

“This is a great victory,” Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli said on Twitter, while Mr Salvini called it “another success of the Italian government”.

The ship will be detained and the captain questioned, Mr Muscat said, because of its refusal to leave the boats the migrants had been travelling on to be intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, as it had been told to do by Italian authorities.

The Italian cabinet was due on Wednesday to approve handing over 12 new patrol boats to the Libyan coast guard, after delivering seven others to it over the past year.

Lifeline has repeatedly said that allowing the Libyan coast guard to take the migrants back would have broken international law because the North African country is unsafe for them. – Reuters