18th Oct 2021

Barroso ends Italian-Maltese stand-off over migrants

  • Rome says Malta should have taken in the 140 stranded migrants. (Photo: AFM)

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso ended an embarrassing four-day long spat between Italy and Malta over 140 African migrants, with Rome finally agreeing to take them in.

On Monday morning, a group of about 30 migrants were escorted from the Turkish cargo ship that had rescued them to southern Sicily to begin asylum procedures.

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A group of 20 migrants with health problems were already evacuated to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Although the two boats carrying the 140 African migrants were found 41 miles from Lampedusa and 65 miles from Malta, Rome said that it was Malta's duty to take the migrants in.

One pregnant woman was found dead, crammed into the Turkish steel cargo ship that was sufficiently equipped for just its crew of 13. The remaining refugees were to be brought ashore later on Monday.

The Italian ministry of foreign affairs said on Sunday it had agreed to take in the stranded migrants only after the intervention of President Barroso, who spoke with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Maltese counterpart, Lawrence Gonzi.

The decision was made "exclusively in consideration of the painful humanitarian emergency aboard the cargo ship," but Rome still maintained: "Malta should have taken them in," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Sunday on state television.

"[Its] government has not complied with a European request from commission president Barroso to respect the rules of search and rescue at sea," he claimed.

Malta, however, claimed that the migrants were found in Italian waters and therefore had no obligation to take them in.

"The European Commission and its president did what they could to find a humanitarian solution and we are pleased that this solution has now been found", commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said at a press briefing on Monday.

The EU executive was grateful to the Turkish cargo crew for the rescue operation and "regretted" that the migrants could not have disembarked sooner.

EU justice commissioner Jacques Barrot stressed that this was a European problem and that the main priority should be for the bloc to engage with origin and transit countries, especially Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, in order to obtain more "efficient co-operation" on reducing the migrant flows.

This was not the first diplomatic row between EU members and neighbours over who must take in migrants. In May 2007, a similar spat broke out between Malta, Spain and Libya over 26 African migrants who had been rescued after three days at sea. No country would accept them, even though they had survived by clinging to a tuna net over the side of a boat.

More than half the 67,000 migrants who reached European Union nations by sea last year came ashore in Malta and Italy, United Nations figures show, with many asylum.

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