In Valletta, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced on Tuesday (6 August) that the government negotiated a deal with Italian authorities to allow the ship to dock at Syracuse in Sicily.
The European Commission urged the Maltese government to help the 102 people, including several pregnant women, who were rescued off the coast of Libya a day earlier. Cecilia Malmström, the home affairs commissioner, said in a statement it was “the humanitarian duty of the Maltese authorities to allow these persons to disembark.”
The refugees were rescued from a sinking rubber boat by an oil tanker, the MT Salamis, which due to make a delivery to Malta. The Liberian-flagged tanker was barred from allowing the refugees to go ashore despite concerns that some were in need of medical attention.
The German asylum advocacy group Pro Asyl accused the Maltese authorities of threatening the use of force if the Salamis’ captain tried to land the refugees at an island port. The organisation urged the EU “to guarantee the reception of the rescued boat people in a safe port in Europe.”
“Threatening the tanker Salamis with military force sends out a fatal message to other boat crews again: look away, carry on, and avoid problems with people in distress,” the group said in a statement.
Malta and other EU countries on the Mediterranean coast have long struggled to handle waves of political and economic refugees who make the perilous sea crossing from North Africa, often in rickety vessels and without adequate food or water.
Though the refugees are mainly from the Horn of Africa, the migratory flow increased after the Arab Spring in 2011, with people fleeing violence in Libya, Egypt and Syria.
The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than 9,000 refugees or asylum-seekers are residing in Malta, which has a population of 416,000, is the EU’s smallest state. On Monday, the agency reported that 8,400 people came ashore on Italy and Malta in the first six months of 2013, compared to 4,500 a year earlier.
Malmström, in her statement, acknowledged the refugee challenge but said “the Commission urges Maltese authorities to let these persons disembark as soon as possible.