Valletta (AFP) – A rescue boat stranded for nearly a week in the Mediterranean with over 200 migrants docked in Malta Wednesday, after a deal was struck between a group of EU states to take them in.
Lifeline, a vessel for the German charity Mission Lifeline, had been waiting to be allocated a port for six days after rescuing 234 migrants off the coast of Libya last Thursday.
The migrants on board will be distributed among eight EU nations who have agreed to take them in, Maltese Prime minister Joseph Muscat said Wednesday.
So far Malta, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland, Belgium and France have agreed to welcome some of the migrants.
Muscat said that after the migrants had disembarked, the Lifeline ship would be impounded in order to carry out an investigation into its legal status and actions on the night of the rescue.
However, Muscat warned that the situation was “unique” and could not be considered a blueprint for handling future rescues.
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.
Belgium and Luxembourg said they would each take 15 of the Lifeline migrants. The Netherlands will take 20.
Theo Francken, Belgian minster for asylum and migration, tweeted that Belgium would help Malta but that it must be one-off operation.
Many passengers were suffering from seasickness and three were in the ship’s hospital facility, according to Lifeline. One passenger has been evacuated, leaving 233 currently on board.
The eight EU nations agreed to take in a share of those on board after days of bickering over the migrants’ fate.
The NGO’s co-founder Axel Steier blamed Germany’s failure to participate in the deal on the country’s hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
Seehofer has taken a strong stance on immigration and given German Chancellor Angela Merkel an ultimatum to curb arrivals to Germany.
– Playing into smugglers’ hands –
Mission Lifeline has hit back at criticism levelled at it by EU leaders.
On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said the charity had contravened “all the rules” by rescuing the migrants when the Libya coastguard was already intervening.
Macron accused Mission Lifeline of “playing into the hands of smugglers”.
But the charity denied breaking the law in a statement on Wednesday.
“There have been a number of false accusations that Lifeline ignores orders by different MRCCs (maritime rescue coordination centres),” said Steier.
Lifeline argued the migrants would not be safe in Libya, where they have faced abuse and rape in holding centres, and that returning them there would breach international refugee law.
“The only order the ship denied was to hand over people to the so-called Libyan coastguard, as this would have been not in line with the Geneva Refugee Convention and therefore criminal.”
– ‘The doors aren’t open’ –
The vessel’s fate had been hanging in the balance since last week as bloc members remained at loggerheads over how to handle the influx of people trying to reach the continent.
Malta and Italy initially refused to take in the migrants, but on Tuesday Valletta agreed to let the ship dock when other EU states confirmed they would help.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had hailed the news that a second migrant ship he had turned away was being taken in elsewhere.
Earlier this month, Rome rejected the Aquarius ship carrying 630 migrants, forcing it to eventually dock in Spain.
“For women and children really fleeing the war the doors are open, for everyone else they are not!” Salvini tweeted.
The decision by Italy’s new hardline government to turn away rescue vessels has plunged Europe into a political crisis over how to collectively handle the huge numbers of people migrating from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Italy and Malta say they are unfairly bearing the brunt of the new arrivals, while other European countries are urging more forceful policies to block their entry.
Sixteen EU leaders held emergency talks in Brussels on Sunday in a bid to break the longstanding deadlock over who should take in the migrants.
A full EU summit is scheduled for Thursday and Friday.