Deal reached with nine EU states for long-suffering stranded migrants
Tired and weary but ecstatic, 49 men, women and children walked on land on Wednesday afternoon after a long journey at sea which saw them finally reaching Malta.
The migrants, who will be shared with Germany, France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy, spent 19 days aboard two NGO rescue ships.
They were refused entry first by Italy – which was legally bound to allow them in – and then by Malta until Wednesday, when an agreement was finally reached on the distribution deal.
As part of the relocation deal, a majority of a separate group of 249 migrants brought to Malta by AFM patrol boats in December will also be taken to other EU countries.
The agreement was announced by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and welcomed by opposing politicians, NGOs, Bishops, the UNHCR and Council of Europe, among others.
“220 persons will be relocated to other member states or be returned to their county of origin,” Dr Muscat said.
Most of the group of 49 migrants, including women and young children, were rescued by the MV Sea-Watch 3 three days before Christmas.
Others were picked up by the MV Sea Eye. The rescues were made between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa, but Italy refused to open its harbours for the ships.
Malta did likewise, though last week it allowed the vessels to enter its waters for shelter as the weather deteriorated.
Sea Watch on Sunday said that the situation aboard was deteriorating dramatically, with food and water running short and the migrants getting dehydrated and demoralised.
Malta had insisted that since the rescues did not take place in its area of competence, it should not be held responsible for the migrants.
As the days dragged on to weeks, calls for EU member states to resolve the matter grew louder and more frequent. On Sunday, Pope Francis made a clear appeal for solidarity.
Talks to resolve the diplomatic stand-off were coordinated by the European Commission and involved all member states.
On Wednesday, Dr Muscat acknowledged that the Maltese government had insisted on a relocation mechanism for the 249 migrants rescued by Malta to also feature as part of a deal to disembark and relocate the 49 stuck at sea.
It would not have been fair, the Prime Minister argued, if the EU agreed to relocate migrants which a member state had refused to take responsibility for – a clear reference to Italy’s position – while not helping out when a government abided by its obligations.
Dr Muscat said the migrants on the two rescue ships will be transferred to AFM patrol boats and the two vessels will then be told to leave Maltese waters.
44 Bangladeshi migrants who were among the 249 rescued by Malta will be repatriated, with assistance by the EU.
Dr Muscat thanked the EU and those member states involved in the relation exercise for their solidarity.
“Every hour that passed without a solution is not an hour I was proud of. The solution was not found by the EU, but by some EU members,” Dr Muscat said.