EU commission warns Malta on migrant boat

06.08.13 @ 13:58

  1. By Honor Mahony
  2. Honor email
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BRUSSELS - The European Commission Tuesday (6 August) warned Malta that it would be in breach of international law if it refused to let a tanker full of rescued migrants dock.

  • Thousands of people try and reach the EU's southern states from Africa every year (Photo: European Commission)

"It is first and foremost important to save the lives of the rescued persons," said EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, noting the ship contains "four pregnant women, one injured woman as well as a five month old baby."

She said Malta, which has refused to allow the tanker to enter its waters, would be acting "contrary to international law" if it sent it back to Libya.

The drama started to unfold Monday morning when the tanker - a Liberian-flagged vessel operated by Greek company Hellenic Shipping - rescued 102 migrants off the coast of Libya after being requested to do so by the Italian authorities.

According to Maltese media, the tanker was instructed to take the migrants to the nearest port of call, which was Libya.

But the captain of the ship decided to continue to Malta anyway where he was told by the government that as the migrants were not in danger the tanker would be refused entry.

Malmstrom said that while she recognised the "migratory pressure" faced by the tiny Mediterranean island - the EU's smallest member state - it is the "humanitarian duty of the Maltese authorities to allow these persons to disembark."

She noted that the captain had sent an urgent medical request that the injured women be hospitalised.

"Any dispute about the responsible search and rescue authority, as well as the right place of disembarkation does not help the persons in immediate need. These issues should be clarified at a later stage," she added.

Each summer brings news of thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa, with the numbers disproportionately affecting Malta.

July saw 1,500 arrivals to the island, a new record.

Speaking last month in Italy - which also sees thousands of people coming via Lampedusa island - Maltese leader Joseph Muscat said that while Europe was "quick in rescuing banks" it was "slow" in rescuing people.

Urging "solidarity" from the EU, Muscat said Malta was taking a number of migrants equivalent to a million going to Germany.

Under EU rules, the first member state a migrant lands in has to process the case, a system which critics says unfairly burdens southern countries.

The European Parliament in June backed new rules on asylum seekers, including an early warning system during busy migration periods allowing some of the normal rules to be temporarily suspended.

But critics of the deal - which was watered down by member states - said at the time that it would do little to help Malta, Italy or Greece.