Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi questioned the government’s decision to stop a migrants’ rescue spotter plane from operating from Malta, insisting that the main priority should be to save human lives.

He was among 200 or so people who gathered at Marsamxett harbour on Thursday evening at a vigil to pay tribute to drowned migrants.

In comments to Times of Malta, Dr Gonzi questioned the Maltese government’s decision to halt an NGO carrying out search flights off the Libyan coast.

“The circumstances we are facing now are extremely worrying and it makes me very sad… I cannot understand how we can possibly justify stopping an airplane from going out to find people who are in danger of losing their lives. It’s just not justifiable,” Dr Gonzi said.

He said the number of migrant arrivals during his term as prime minister were much larger than today but the government stood clear about its values and faced the reality of people escaping from terrible horrors. There is also a legal responsibility to the problem as well but that is "secondary".

"Among those groups of people escaping are vulnerable. It makes me very sad."

He said the main priority should be saving human lives.

In a short address, Integra Foundation founder Maria Pisani said the vigil was held to acknowledge and honour the thousands upon thousands of migrants who had lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

She said recent EU policy developments had contributed to more deaths in the Mediterranean.

These deaths could never be justified or normalised, she said.

In the past days, Malta allowed the charity ship Lifeline to dock at Malta following a spat with Italy. It then closed its ports to ships carrying migrants that are operated by NGOs. The move has been denounced by humanitarian organisations and also the Church.

The ship’s captain, Claus-Peter Reisch, was on Monday charged in court with sailing into Maltese waters without the necessary registration and licence.

His case continued on Thursday.

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