EU seeks hosts for migrants amid new Italy, Malta standoff
● Airlifted migrants say Malta ‘abandoned’ them
The European Union is trying to find countries willing to take 177 people rescued at sea after Italy sought its help to deal with yet another migrant standoff with Malta.
The Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti had been left stranded near Lampedusa for the past few days after both Italy and Malta refused it entry.
The vessel was yesterday steaming towards Pozzallo in Sicily but it was understood that the migrants will not be allowed off the ship until the EU brokers an agreement.
The Diciotti was at the centre of the latest stand-off between Malta and Italy.
Malta says the interception took place in international seas and that the migrants were not in distress. But Rome says the ship picked up the migrants in the Maltese search and rescue area, and 13 of those on board had to be airlifted for medical treatment.
Home Affairs Minister Matteo Salvini said he wanted to see whether claims made by the airlifted migrants – that the Maltese forces had “abandoned” them – were true. “If this is the case, then this would be further proof that the EU does not exist, that there are too many countries fooling around to Italy’s detriment.”
Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli said on Sunday that sanctions should be imposed on Malta over its ‘failure’ to rescue the migrants.
In Brussels, the EU's executive Commission said it had begun contacting other EU countries to see who's willing to help but warned that it has no authority to handle search and rescue missions or to say where migrants should be put ashore.
"Contacts are ongoing," Commission spokeswoman Tove Ernst said, without naming the countries it is in touch with.
She added: "Search and rescue is a question of international law. It's a matter for national authorities. It's not within the competence of the European Commission."
The Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday that it had written to the Commission asking it to work out a solution, as Brussels has done on previous occasions recently. The Diciotti is working with the EU border and coast guard agency Frontex on Mediterranean rescue operations.
The letter follows threats by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to send the migrants back to Libya, which is not considered a safe country by the EU.
Italy's populist government is refusing to accept migrants rescued at sea. In recent weeks, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Germany and Portugal have agreed to host them.
The latest incident happened a day after the NGO rescue ship Aquarius — with 141 migrants aboard, most of them from Eritrea and Somalia — was finally allowed to dock in Malta after a four-day standoff.
EU leaders in June agreed to find a solution to the problem but none has been found yet.
"The EU cannot rely on ad-hoc arrangements. What we need are sustainable solutions," Ernst said.
In June, the European Commission and the Maltese government had also brokered a migrant sharing agreement after another NGO ship - the MV Lifeline – was allowed to disembark some 234 migrants in Malta. Unlike the Aquarius, which was allowed to sail back out, the Lifeline and two other NGO rescue ships are currently impounded in the Grand Harbour.