Friday

3rd Feb 2023

Commission: stalemate on migrants off Malta due to swelling numbers

  • 32 people have stuck on the Sea-Watch since 22 December (Photo: Sea Watch)

The European Commission says 49 migrants stranded on two NGO boats off the Maltese coast since last month have yet to be helped by EU states - because of another 249 people recently rescued by the island-nation's navy.

Paraskevi Michou, who leads the commission's migration department, told MEPs on Monday (7 January) that nothing has happened because the 249 rescues "makes the calculation bigger".

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Her comments follow a meeting on the same day with EU states in Brussels in an effort to resolve the issue and is a demonstration of how numbers factor into EU-level decision-making when it comes to helping people in distress.

Some 32 people, including children and minors, have been stuck on the Sea-Watch rescue boat since 22 December. Another 17 were rescued by Sea Eye, also a German charity vessel, on 29 December.

Michou said 10 EU states had expressed some interest in helping, but when asked why nothing has been done she pointed to the 249 figure.

"It is not only Sea-Watch and Sea Eye, it is 'plus 249', so it makes the calculation bigger," said Michou.

Both boats are now moored off the Maltese coast as conditions worsen with reports that some migrants are now refusing to eat in protest.

Michou made the statements to MEPs in the European Parliament's civil liberties committee following a presentation of a study, also at the committee, that suggests the overall lack of coordinated EU action on asylum costs the taxpayer some €49bn a year.

"Member states say they are prepared to find a solution - but they can't find a solution for these 40 people, it is a crazy situation," said French far-left MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat.

Portugal's centre-left MEP, Ana Gomes, made similar comments.

"What is the point of having these offers if nothing works, if you allow the other 18 to block it?" she said.

Italy's centre-left MEP Cecile Kyenge said that there should be an obligation to allow people to disembark.

"You cannot not let people stay there on the vessels on the high seas while we come up with political solutions," she said, noting that the stand-off makes a mockery of the EU's Nobel Peace prize.

Women and children first?

Another divide has also appeared in Italy's coalition government over the issue, as the leader of the Five Star movement, Luigi Di Maio, suggested the country take in the 10 women and children stranded on the NGO boats.

The offer was quickly shot down by Italy's deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who also leads the far-right League party, despite recent pleas by Pope Francis for EU states to grant a safe port for the stranded migrants.

The commission says the stand-off highlights the need for a better-coordinated EU response but the demand is unlikely to materialise following years of acrimonious policy debates among EU states on asylum reforms.

In early December, the commission had floated vague proposals on "temporary arrangements" as a stop-gap measure to test concepts of solidarity when it comes to sea rescues and disembarkation.

The stalled reforms include an overhaul of the Dublin regulation, an EU-wide system that determines who is responsible for handling asylum applications.

After two years of internal talks, EU states have failed to come to any position on the file. The EU parliament formulated its position in 2017.

The task to get the file closed among EU states is now under the charge of the Romanian EU presidency but the prospect of a reaching a settlement before the European elections in May is slim.

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