VALLETTA, Malta – Malta on Tuesday agreed to let a private rescue ship dock on the island, with the 141 migrants it is carrying to be distributed among five fellow European Union nations in what was described as a “responsibility-sharing exercise.”
The migrants were plucked to safety by the aid boat Aquarius in two separate operations in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya on Friday. The boat was reported to be about 50 kilometers (35 miles) from Malta on Tuesday afternoon when the deal was announced.
“Malta will be making a concession allowing the vessel to enter its ports, despite having no legal obligation to do so,” the Maltese government said in a statement.
It said that Malta will serve as a logistical base and that all the migrants aboard will be distributed among France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain.
Previously this summer Malta had allowed another private aid group’s rescue vessel to dock, also on condition other nations take the migrants, although in that case Malta also agreed to take some.
Malta also noted that on Monday it had rescued 114 persons at sea, with 60 of them destined to go to other EU nations as part of cooperation in the bloc.
Aquarius had been waiting for safe harbor after appealing to Italy and Malta.
Italy’s new populist government is refusing to allow any private rescue ships to dock, saying the country has done more than its share by allowing some 600,000 rescued migrants to disembark in previous years.
Malta said the dilemma over the fate of the migrants saved by Aquarius was resolved following French-Maltese discussions, and the agreement took shape “with the support of the European Commission” to participate in a “responsibility-sharing exercise.”
Italy’s ruling coalition, which includes an anti-migrant party, has been lobbying for just such cooperation since it took power in June.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, thanking Malta “for its humanitarian gesture” and saying France offers its full solidarity. “There’s no alternative to cooperation,” Macron said.
France will take 60 of the migrants, including some from the group rescued by Malta on Monday.
Portugal, which will take 30 from those aboard Aquarius and the other boats, was the first country to say it could take in some of the migrants. Spain agreed to take 60.
Germany said it would take up to 50 of the rescued migrants being brought to Malta.
Operating Aquarius are two French aid groups, SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, who said that many aboard are weak and malnourished. Many rescued migrants say they receive scanty rations while detained, often for months, in Libya, awaiting opportunity to depart aboard human traffickers’ unseaworthy boats. Sixty-seven of those rescued are unaccompanied minors.
Many aboard Aquarius are originally from Eritrea and Somalia.
Sophie Beau, vice President of SOS Mediterranee’s international network, told reporters that both her group and Doctors Without Borders have been warning European authorities for two months of the need for a mechanism to avoid standoffs at sea.
The top EU migration official, Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, while commending the latest countries to offer to take some of those rescue vessels reaching Malta, he warned that: “We cannot rely on ad-hoc arrangements.” Calling for “sustainable solutions,” he added that it wasn’t the “responsibility of one or a few member states only, but of the European Union as a whole.”
France’s offer Tuesday followed pleas from authorities in Corsica and other French areas on the Mediterranean to help Aquarius.
Among them was Jean-Guy Talamoni, president of Corsica’s local assembly. “It’s time (Europe) wakes up and that everyone takes their share of responsibility,” he told BFM-TV. “In the meantime, there are emergency situations, and you have to deal with them.”
Earlier in the summer, Malta agreed to give safe harbor to a German aid group’s vessel Lifeline, but only after agreement that the 234 rescued migrants aboard would be distributed among Italy, Malta and seven other countries. So far 117 of the asylum-seekers have left Malta.
Lifeline’s German captain of the Lifeline has pleaded innocent in a Maltese court to charges he entered the island nation’s waters illegally and without proper registration.
Many of the migrants are fleeing poverty in Africa and Asia and are eventually denied asylum, unlike those escaping wars or persecution.
Arrivals into Europe of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa numbered just over 61,500 through Aug. 12, with 1,524 deaths reported, the U.N. migration agency said Tuesday.
That compares with more than 118,000 arrivals through the same period last year, and 265,640 in 2016.
Many migrants this year have headed to Spain, on what is known as the Western Mediterranean route, with 25,101 arrivals there, the agency said. Italy received 19,231, the second-highest number.
Quim Torra, the president of Spain’s Catalan region, offered three Catalan ports as safe harbor for the ship.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s minority government has come under political pressure over its migrant policy after it initially offered a generous welcome to asylum-seekers and refugees.
In June, Spain allowed the Aquarius to dock at Valencia’s port after the rescue vessel, with 629 migrants aboard, was denied safe harbor by Italy and Malta.
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