Italy accepted 102 migrants blocked by Malta due mainly to humanitarian reasons, according to the Italian ambassador.

“After two days of stalemate my authorities decided out of humanitarian concerns to accept the boat and host the 102 persons, who are presenting their request for protection,” Giovanni Umberto De Vito said.

The migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast on Sunday by a Greek-owned tanker but the ship master ignored orders by the Rome rescue centre to take them to Tripoli, as the nearest safe port. Instead, citing commercial reasons, the captain continued on his way to Malta but was refused entry to Maltese waters.

Choosing his words carefully, the Italian ambassador avoided a direct answer as to whether Italy’s decision stemmed purely from humanitarian concerns or whether it had legal obligations to accept the migrants.

For the first time, Italy seems to have used Malta’s argument that the migrants should go to the closest safe port rather than the country coordinating the rescue – maritime lawyer

Instead, he acknowledged the complicated nature of such cases, adding there were several dimensions that had to be taken into consideration.

It was not just a question of the boat master’s commercial interests, or a security concern, or what the law of the sea required, Mr De Vito said.

“The Italian authorities decided on the basis of more general considerations including the humanitarian dimension of this issue... and this has been internationally recognised.”

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström congratulated Italy for showing solidarity and accepting the migrants.

Mr De Vito said that during the same period the Italian coastguard was called out four times to rescue migrants in distress as another boat reached Sicily.

“They were very difficult days and both Malta and Italy are front liners in this situation and both have to face day by day emergencies,” he said.

Mr De Vito said Italy was interested in strengthening dialogue between the rescue authorities of the two countries. He said Italy and Malta were not only neighbours but were also exposed to the same pressures caused by people crossing over from North Africa.

“We must avoid misunderstandings because the common challenge can be tackled better in a coordinated way,” he said.

However, Government sources said Italy may have accepted the MT Salamis due to “commercial reasons”, specifically concern over possible loss of business.

The Greek-owned cargo ship was carrying millions of euros worth of gasoil and was heading to Italy from Libya where it intercepted the migrant boat, the sources told Times of Malta.

Originally, Italy told the ship to return to Libya to drop off the migrants at the closest safe port, but the captain refused due to its own commercial considerations.

After Greece’s intervention and Malta’s refusal to take the migrants itself, Italy conceded to let the boat in.

“Why Italy took this decision is a legitimate question and one which is not entirely clear. It could be that the instructions given to the tanker in the first place were somehow unclear and maybe Italy was at fault over there,” a Government source said.

“Another reason could be Italy’s own commercial considerations. Maybe it did not want to lose business by complicating matters further,” the source added.

Meanwhile, a source who was involved in similar operations under the previous Nationalist Government agreed that the European Commission was wrong to expect Malta to take in the migrants.

“The responsibility was Italy’s not Malta’s. But in their attempt to show the Prime Minister as a strongman, the Government did not fully explain the legal issues at play,” the source said.

“This was no change in policy or a great victory for Malta. It was just a matter of Italy accepting its international obligations. Once Libya stopped being an option, the responsibility was Italy’s because under international law, the coordinating country is responsible.”

Maritime lawyer Patricia Mallia pointed out that international law was not clear on a situation like the one that developed because there was no default state of disembarkation at law.

Under Italy’s interpretation of international law, people rescued in Libyan waters should be returned to Libya since the search and rescue region should be ultimately responsible.

However, this was not acceptable if would-be asylum seekers were at risk of persecution, she argued.

Since Italy was coordinating the rescue, it then fell upon Italy to see where else to send the migrants.

“For the first time, Italy seems to have used Malta’s argument that the migrants should go to the closest safe port rather than the country coordinating the rescue,” said Dr Mallia, who found it contradictory for Italy to use the same reasoning it had always rejected.

Malta would only have been obliged to take the migrants if they were in distress, due to humanitarian reasons, she said.

However, she disagreed with the assertion that Libya was a safe port and was therefore pleased that Italy eventually accepted to take in the migrants itself.

Meanwhile, Government sources have questioned why the European Commission did not raise any questions on the return of another cargo boat to Libya. On Monday, a group of 96 migrants were rescued by a Turkish ship in the Libyan search and rescue zone and were returned to Tripoli, the nearest port of call.

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