Malta to help Italy relocate migrants aboard two vessels

Malta to help Italy relocate migrants aboard two vessels

OPM pledges to join Italy-led relocation exercise

The boat position relayed by the Maltese government last night.

The boat position relayed by the Maltese government last night.

Updated 8.50pm

Malta has pledged to take in some of the 450 migrants stuck at sea due to a diplomatic dispute, the government said on Saturday evening. 

The relocation exercise, which is being coordinated by Italy, mirrors a similar plan announced by Malta two weeks ago to relocate migrants aboard the MV Lifeline. Nine EU member states, including Italy, had joined that initiative.

In a statement, the Office of the Prime Minister said Joseph Muscat had spoken with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and pledged to help relocate the migrants. 

The OPM said that its offer to take part in an eventual relocation exercise was "without prejudice to the undisputed fact that it acted in conformity with international rules also in this case." 

The Maltese government statement did not say how many migrants Malta had agreed to take in, but writing on Facebook, Mr Conte said that Malta and France had both agreed to relocate 50 people each.  

"Soon other EU member states will sign up," he wrote, adding that "finally, Italy is being heard." 

Mr Conte posted the text of two separate letters he sent to European heads of state and government and to the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council.

"We have to act together with urgency to face this complex and very sensitive situation," Conte wrote in one letter.

He  also called for further measures to tackle illegal immigration, including pan-EU rules for private boats rescuing migrants, a strengthening of Frontex and talks with the United Nations on centres for asylum seekers outside Europe.

Mr Conte spent Saturday speaking to EU leaders to try and resolve the impasse and bring the migrants, who were transferred to two rescue vessels close to the island of Linosa earlier on Saturday, to safety. 

A group of 176 were transferred to a patrol boat forming part of the EU border agency and another 266 to an Italian patrol boat, but the final destination of the migrants is not yet known.

Eight people, all women and children, have already been transported to Lampedusa aboard patrol boats for health reasons. A woman is pregnant.

Italian media reported the country's far-right home affairs minister, Matteo Salvini, as saying that the rescued people should be taken to Malta or Libya. 

"The two ships with 451 migrants on board must be told to head for south, direction Malta, which again looked the other way, or even better Libya. It will give a clear and consistent message to human traffickers," Italy's right-wing deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini was reported telling the Italian media.

Matteo Salvini has upped his migration rhetoric.Matteo Salvini has upped his migration rhetoric.

A source within Mr Conte's office said Mr Salvini had spoken with the Italian prime minister on the telephone to discuss a way to resolve the situation.

"The migrants could be distributed immediately among European countries, or Italy would contact Libya to send them back to where they came from," the source said.

A third option would be to leave the migrants on the ships temporarily while their asylum requests are considered.

Libyan officials ruled out helping Rome on the matter.

"No, we will not accept any illegal migrants after they are rescued by rescue ships...," the spokesman of Libya's coastguard, Ayob Qassem, told Reuters.

Under international law, refugees cannot be returned to a place where their lives are in danger. Both the United Nations and EU have ruled that Libya is not safe, though Salvini this week asked EU interior ministers to change that status. German, Austrian and French ministers agreed it could be done, Salvini said

Salvini points to Malta

The dispute came to light on Friday afternoon when Mr Salvini said he would bar the migrants' boats from his country's ports and said Malta should assume responsibility for them. 

Read: Malta rebuffs Salvini, says it's not responsible for 450 stranded migrants

"The boat is in waters which fall under the jurisdiction of Malta, which has assumed responsibility for the rescue. Nothing happened for hours and the boat is now sailing towards Italy," Mr Salvini said in a social media post.

"As promised, I will not give up. Malta, the smugglers, and the do-gooders should know this boat will not land here," he said, upping his anti-migrant rhetoric.

But in a statement later, the Maltese government said when the information of the boat's presence was relayed, the vessel was about 53 nautical miles away from Lampedusa and 110 nautical miles from Malta.