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16th Oct 2021

EU Commission seeks help as hundreds stuck off Malta coast

  • Captain Morgan cruise boats are being used to keep migrants offshore. (Photo from 2008.) (Photo: Pepino)

The European Commission is demanding swift disembarkation of hundreds of people stranded on boats miles off the Maltese coast.

"They need to be disembarked as soon as possible," a European Commission spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Wednesday (3 June).

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Some 400 who fled Libya are stuck on Maltese Captain Morgan boats, which are typically reserved for sight-seeing tourists.

Malta has refused to allow them to set foot on dry land since April after claiming unsafe ports because of the pandemic caused by Covid-19.

Last week, Malta's foreign affairs minister Evarist Bartolo said the island-nation is too small to accept arrivals and needs support from other EU states.

"So far this year 1,500 irregular migrants have reached Malta - nearly half the total amount we had the for whole of last year," he said, in a statement.

The statement also follows recent reports of illegal push-backs from Maltese waters to Libya in moves orchestrated by Malta's government.

With pandemic restrictions easing throughout much of the EU, the commission says there is an urgent need for member states to help Malta.

Efforts are underway to have the people transferred to other EU states, amid reports of hunger strikes and suicide attempts among those stranded on the boats.

The commission did not say if any EU state has yet stepped forward.

But SOS Mediterranean, a Geneva-based civil group, said the people are in fact being used as pawns, given the general political backlash against those seeking international protection in Europe.

"This summer again, the Mediterranean should not turn into a sea of death and inhumanity", said Sophie Beau, SOS Mediterranean co-founder, in a statement.

Maltese media report those on the boat come from Bangladesh, Morocco, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and other West African countries.

Such stand-offs where people are refused to disembark a boat until other EU states agree to take them are common.

They have been happening at least since 2009 but have intensified over the past few years.

Over 30 boats in the central Mediterranean have been caught in the tug of war over disembarkation and relocation since last autumn.

Of those 3,614 people were disembarked to Italy and another 700 in Malta. Many ended up in Germany.

The current saga points to a bitter debate over migration and asylum throughout much of the EU as the European Commission struggles to find a response that appeases all 27 capitals.

Deaths at sea case raises questions over Malta's role

Malta's prime minister's office is under scrutiny after allegations it gave instructions for a private vessel to push back a boat of migrants from waters within its zone of responsibility, and back to Libya. At least 12 people died.

EU money can be used to offshore migrants on boats

The European Commission says member states can use EU funds to pay for food, medical supplies, and personnel on vessels hosting migrants offshore - provided that all legal conditions are met.

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