Italy accepts migrants refused by Malta

Italy has agreed to take in 102 migrants rescued from a leaking dinghy after Malta refused to admit them despite EU pressure, the Maltese government said on Wednesday.

Italy accepts migrants refused by Malta
The EU has criticized Malta's actions over the migrants. Photo: Italian coast guard press office/AFP

The migrants, including a five-month-old baby and four pregnant women, were rescued from their badly damaged inflatable boat on Monday by the Liberian-flagged Salamis oil tanker 80 kilometres off the Libyan coast.

In a statement released overnight, Malta said the Salamis, which had been moored off the Mediterranean island nation in international waters, was heading for Syracuse in Sicily.

"This development came as the Italian authorities accepted to welcome the migrants who are aboard the MV Salamis. It followed diplomatic contacts between the Italian, Maltese and Greek governments," the government said.

It said Prime Minister Joseph Muscat personally thanked Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta. 

"Malta's position during this crisis was always strong, consistent and legitimate. Through this position, Malta sent a strong message," Muscat was quoted as saying in the statement.

Muscat has sparked controversy with his hardline approach to boat migrants. 

In July he said the government was considering expelling them, insisting he had to "get the message across that Malta is not a pushover".

The country refused to allow the 102 migrants aboard the Salamis to land despite a call from the European Commission to do so "as soon as possible" to save lives.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said it was Malta's "humanitarian duty" and sending the ship back "would be contrary to international law."

The Maltese government claimed that a patrolling Italian navy ship had ordered the Salamis to take the migrants to the nearest available port, in this case in Libya, but said the captain refused to obey the order.

Muscat said in a tweet on Tuesday that the country meets its international obligations but "cannot be expected to intervene in place of irresponsible boat owners who defy rules for their commercial needs."

The Salamis was heading to Malta with a consignment of oil.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants from Africa have braved the seas in dangerously ill-equipped vessels operated by traffickers to get to Italy and other parts of the European Union in recent years, many paying with their lives.

Malta had a record 880 arrivals in July with some 1,200 in total having landed on the island so far this year.

On Wednesday, Maltese police said 86 immigrants had been rescued overnight after their dinghy started taking in water, and brought to Malta.

The migrants consisted of 65 men, 17 women and four children who were dehydrated but did not need urgent medical attention, the police said.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.