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15th Aug 2020

EU unable to comment on Italy and Malta port closures

  • The Aita Mari has 43 migrants onboard but nowhere to take them. (Photo: Aita Mari)

The European Commission says it cannot comment on decisions by Italy and Malta declaring their ports unsafe for rescue ships.

"We are not in a position to make a comment of a legal nature on this particular case," a European Commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday (14 April).

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The spokesperson said the EU institution has no competence to determine whether a port is safe.

Italy and Malta made the announcement to seal the ports following the outbreak of the pandemic triggered by Covid-19. Libya's UN-recognised government in Tripoli did the same.

The closures mean NGO rescue boats are unable to disembark migrants, amid contested reports that some have since drowned.

Germany's Sea-Watch International on Monday said that at least three boats with some 150 migrants have been in distress for days.

"No state wants to rescue them," it said, noting a fourth boat had sunk.

Alarm Phone, an organisation that provides support to people fearing for the lives at sea, says some of those scrambling for help are women and children.

At least one is a pregnant woman who had been rescued, along with 42 other people, by the Spanish-flagged charity vessel, Aita Mari.

The boat had been en route to return to Spain from Sicily when it was diverted towards a distress call on Monday.

"Malta denies us safe harbour," it then said, in a Tweet on Tuesday, noting however Maltese authorities had agreed to provide it with extra food, vests and water.

Malta, Libya and EU aid

Malta in turn is demanding the EU to launch an immediate €100m humanitarian operation in Libya.

In a letter to the EU's foreign policy chief, Malta's foreign minister Evarist Bartolo says the situation in Libya is snowballing into a major humanitarian disaster.

He said all of Malta's resources are currently being channeled into dealing with pandemic, noting that the island-nation had disembarked close to 4,500 migrants in the past 12 months.

"The situation urgently requires tangible and decisive action which, in our view, must comprise an urgent EU humanitarian intervention in Libya," he said.

For its part, a spokesperson from the EU's foreign policy branch, confirmed that Bartolo's letter had been received.

"We will give it due consideration and reply in an appropriate way," said the spokesperson.

The whole points to a wider crusade against migrant disembarkation at sea as EU states shore up barriers to prevent NGO rescue boats from helping.

An EU-level sea operation known as Sophia, which was mandated to tackle trafficking, has since been replaced by a much weaker mission called Irini tasked to enforce the Libyan arms embargo.

Sophia had more ships and carried out rescues but was effectively shut down by Italy's hard-right then deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

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