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26th May 2022

EU money can be used to offshore migrants on boats

  • Malta reportedly wants the EU to help pay to hold migrants on a large passenger ship moored at sea (Photo: Neil Howard)

EU purse strings are open for member states to hold migrants on boats offshore - under certain legal conditions.

The statement by the Brussels-executive on Tuesday (1 September) follows Maltese media reports that the government in Valletta intends to spend over €1m a month to detain migrants and refugees on a large Cypriot-flagged passenger ship.

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The commission's comments are a general statement - not linked to the specifics of Malta's decision - noting that people on board must have access to asylum procedures in order to secure EU funds.

"This is also related to the place where the activity would take place, as EU asylum law does not apply in international waters," said a commission spokesperson, in an email.

The commission further noted that the money can only be used to finance food, medical assistance, and boat personnel.

The Maltese government did not respond as of writing on whether it intends to use EU funding to pay for the million-euro a month plan.

But earlier this week The Shift news, an independent media outlet in Malta, reported the government was trying to finance the project from the EU budget.

Floating hotspots

Similar ideas first broached in 2016 by the Italian government, to create so-called floating hotspots, where migrants are screened on boats, failed to gain much support.

Rome at the time proposed health, security and identity checks on the boats before bringing rescued people on shore for further asylum evaluation.

But case law at the European Court of Strasbourg complicated the proposals, given wider issues over detention and human rights.

It is not immediately clear if the Maltese government intends to carry out screenings, or offer those it detains on the boat access to asylum procedures.

Both Malta and Italy had earlier this year declared their ports unsafe given the pandemic.

But the scheme points to a wider a problem of how to parcel out people, initially rescued at sea, among EU states.

For over 10 days, some 350 people were left stranded on the charity rescue boat, Sea-Watch 4 until granted permission to disembark in Palermo, Sicily.

Over 2,000 relocated since mid-2018

Such incidents have been occurring on and off since 2018.

The European Commission is often called to help coordinate the subsequent relocations.

It says that over 2,000 people rescued at sea were transferred from Malta and Italy to other EU states and Norway between 27 June 2018 and 3 August 2020.

Of those, some 1,090 were transferred from Malta and 967 from Italy. Another 849 remain to be relocated from both.

Some 1,251 were transferred after disembarkations that took place in 2019, and 68 were transferred after disembarkations that took place in 2020.

"These applicants were transferred to Germany, Spain, Finland, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal and Romania," said the commission.

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