VALLETTA (Reuters) - A humanitarian ship that has had about 230 rescued migrants on board for almost a week docked in Malta on Wednesday, ending a stand-off with Italy which refused to let the ship into one of its ports.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said seven European Union countries had offered to share the burden of the migrants with Malta. The Lifeline ship, operated by German charity Mission Lifeline, arrived at about 1740 GMT.
“Lifeline will be granted permission to enter a Maltese port, where procedures for identification, ascertaining their asylum eligibility, and distribution to other member states will start immediately,” Muscat told reporters earlier on Wednesday.
“The Maltese government took the lead on a solution before the situation escalated to a humanitarian crisis,” he added, emphasising, however, that the small island nation was not legally bound to take in the vessel.
The Lifeline is the second charity ship that Italy has shut out of its ports this month after the new anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said private rescue vessels would no longer be welcome because they “cannot dictate Italy’s immigration policy”.
Muscat said that permitting the ship to dock in Malta was a one-time, or “ad-hoc”, resolution to the standoff. While 650,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea since 2014, Malta has allowed in only those needing urgent medical care.
Italy has indicated it wants this kind of solution for sea rescues to continue.
Immigration has become an urgent political issue across the EU in recent weeks, since the new Italian government took power earlier this month and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s coalition split over the issue.
A summit between EU leaders that will tackle the bloc’s common framework for managing migration will be held in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
“We are very proud that the crew rescued 234 people,” Lifeline spokesman Axel Steier said as the ship approached Valletta harbour, thanking Malta for taking it in. “This situation is special because the crew was out there for a long time and it’s not normal.”
Germany was not among the countries that agreed to take in some of the migrants on the Lifeline.
Italy, Ireland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal “agreed to collaborate to offer a European solution”, a statement from Muscat’s office said.
“This is a great victory,” Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said on Twitter, while Salvini called it “another success of the Italian government”.
The ship will be detained and the captain questioned, Muscat said, because of its refusal to leave the migrant boats to be intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, as it had been told to do by Italian authorities.
Italy and the EU have supported and trained the Libyan coastguard, and the Italian cabinet was due on Wednesday to approve handing over 12 new patrol boats to it after delivering seven others over the past year.
Lifeline has repeatedly said that allowing the Libyan coastguard to take the migrants back would have broken international law because the North African country is unsafe for them.
About 80 percent of an estimated 5,000-7,000 migrants being held in government-run detention centres in Libya were intercepted by the country’s coastguard, said Ibrahim Younis, who is mission head in Tripoli for Doctors without Borders.
Conditions in the centres are not good. Scabies is rampant and many suffer from tuberculosis, he said. The migrants are held indefinitely, but often those who get out are seen being brought back after they are picked up by the Libyan coastguard.
“It’s a cycle,” Younis said.
writing by Steve Scherer; editing by David Stamp