Valletta (AFP) – Maltese authorities said Thursday the migrants on board the rescue ship Lifeline, which docked in Malta after nearly a week stranded at sea, were mainly from Sudan.
“The nationalities so far are mostly Sudanese, there are Eritreans, also Somalis so it’s a mixed group and also some from West African countries,” Roberta Buhagiar, a representative from Malta’s interior ministry told journalists.
Lifeline, a vessel for the German charity Mission Lifeline, had been waiting for permission to enter a port for six days after rescuing 234 migrants off the coast of Libya last Thursday.
Malta finally agreed on Wednesday to let the ship dock after a deal among a group of EU states was reached to take in the migrants.
After the migrants had disembarked, “a few were taken to hospital for immediate medical attention,” Buhagiar said, while the rest were brought to a reception centre near the country’s capital Valletta.
She said they would stay there pending medical clearance to begin interviews on the asylum procedure.
On Wednesday, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the migrants on board would be processed and “genuine asylum seekers will be afforded protection”, while “procedures will be started immediately to return those that do not qualify… in accordance with law.”
Buhagiar added that “in the coming days, we will expect member state delegations to be visiting Malta in order to agree how we are going to manage the situation and actually take some of them.”
The co-founder of Mission Lifeline Axel Steier told AFP Thursday that he believed “a very, very high percentage” of those on board qualified for asylum in the European Union.
On Wednesday Muscat said the Lifeline ship would be impounded in order to carry out a full investigation into its legal status and actions on the night of the rescue.
Mission Lifeline has come under fire from EU leaders, who accuse it of contravening international law by rescuing the migrants when the Libyan coastguard was already intervening.
“The captain was questioned (late Wednesday) as part of the investigation and then returned to the ship,” Steier told AFP, adding that he had returned to police headquarters again Thursday.
“We followed all the instructions of the authorities except the one saying to bring the people back to Libya,” he said.
Lifeline argued that the migrants would not be safe in Libya, where they have faced abuse in holding centres, and that returning them there would breach international refugee law.