A group of 140 migrants was rescued from a sinking dinghy and landed in Malta, but the authorities refused to bring them to land, holding them instead on a chartered tourist harbour cruise boat just outside the country’s 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 region.
The migrants were transferred to the tourist boat on Friday afternoon. They join counterparts on another two tourist boats chartered for the same purpose by the government just over two weeks ago and holding another 160 migrants.
The government has repeatedly said that it will not allow any migrants to land in Malta, saying other European Union nations have not kept promises to take migrants already brought to the island.
Referring to measures in place since March intended to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Robert Abela has also told the EU that once Malta’s airport and harbours have been closed to tourists, they will not be open to migrants.
“This is not Malta’s problem, although we are doing more than is expected of us,” Abela had previously said.
The government confirmed on Friday, however, that a group of 19 including children, their parents and pregnant women who had been among the newly rescued migrants have been brought to Malta for humanitarian reasons.
Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo in a statement had said Malta’s migration centres are holding twice the number of people they were designed for, and 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. We are being left alone. Words of sympathy are not enough; we need practical help,” he said referring to the EU.
Only eight percent of migrant arrivals had been distributed to the EU over the years, he said. Malta, he said, was protecting an EU external border, but “we cannot become [the] European Union’s crisis centre”.
Malta has seen a surge of migrant arrivals this year. Some 1,500 had arrived by early March, compared to 3,400 for the full year last year.