‘Malta needed assurances on relocation of 249 migrants rescued before allowing disembarkation’ – Muscat

Sea Watch/ Chris Grodotzki

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat explained that Malta argued for the relocation of the 249 people rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) before allowing the disembarkation of 49 asylum seekers that were stranded at sea.

READ: Updated: 1 pregnant woman among 69 rescued by AFM

READ: Maltese Bishops show appreciation to AFM; 180 migrants rescued

Malta was faced with two options during the deadlock on the 49 asylum seekers at sea, the Prime Minister told Parliament on Monday during a ministerial statement. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat explained that the country could either open its ports and allow disembarkation before securing any assurances from other Member States that they would participate in an ad hoc relocation mechanism for which the country would have garnered human rights organisations support, described as “NGOs cheering” by Muscat. Alternatively Malta could opt to close its ports irrespective of the consequences such actions would bear for the asylum seekers.

READ: Watch: Rescued asylum seekers finally disembark in Malta

Muscat said that international laws must be respected for such situations to be avoided in the future, and said this also applied for search and rescue NGOs.

The Prime Minister tabled a map in parliament showing where the search and rescue operations carried out by Sea Watch 3 and Professor Albrecht Penck claiming that both boats were intercepted closer to the Libyan coasts.

He further explained how the nearest ports Libya, Tunisia and Italy, saying that Italy had refused to grant the vessels permissions to dock upon request.

The vessels then moved closer to Malta, and at one point were closer to Malta’s search and rescue zone. Malta’s SAR zone is almost 600NM and 130NM, while Malta’s territorial waters are 12NM and the 24NM is Malta’s extended zone. Muscat further said that Malta was not responsible for anything that could have occurred to those on board the vessels as the boats sailed outside of Maltese territorial waters.

According to Muscat, the vessels asked for refuge from the storm in Maltese territorial waters which was granted, reiterating that at any point, Malta was not responsible. Throughout his speech, Muscat reiterated many times that the 49 asylum seekers on board the two NGO vessels were not Malta’s responsibility. He further explained that it was clarified that Malta would allow them to seek refuge in its territorial waters but would not allow them to dock and disembark the rescued people.

The European Commission stepped in to broker the deal

Muscat spoke of the ad hoc deal, explaining that Malta made two arguments in front of the Commission, firstly that the Member State was in no way responsible for the 49 asylum seekers stranded and that 249 migrants were rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta in the last week of December, the latter being Malta’s responsibility.

READ: ‘Migration – We tried to instill common sense’ – Muscat

Muscat said that Malta argued that it made no sense to have an ad hoc relocation mechanism kick in only when Member States refuse to abide by their legal obligations saying that Malta did not kick up a fuss when rescuing the 249 migrants. Muscat also argued that by only taking up the 49 migrants it would have sent the wrong message.

READ: Commissioner Avramopoulos calls on Member States to provide support

He then spoke of the 49 asylum seekers on board saying that at no point was the human aspect ignored, and the situation was closely monitored also offering medical evacuations in case the need arose. Muscat said that he was aware of the presence of children, as well as parents on board, however he stressed that while everyone closed their ports, one could not expect that Malta opens its ports to everyone else.

He thanked the President of the European Commission Jean Claude Junker, the Commissioner on Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, the Secretary General of the Commission as well as the Opposition.

READ: Watch: ‘Believe me, it was not easy, but it worked’ – EC Commissioner

Eight countries offered to participate in the relocation of the asylum seekers, none of the 49 asylum seekers will remain in Malta, as well as 171 of the 249 migrants will be part of the relocation deal and 44 Bangladeshis will be deported back with the help of the European Asylum Support Office, EASO.

READ: Civil society efforts not a substitute for government responsibility on migration, says COMECE