Migrant rescue ship in limbo as EU nations argue over deal

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini quickly hailed the news that a second migrant ship he had turned away would be taken in elsewhere.

epa06838214 A handout photo made available by German NGO 'Mission Lifeline' on 25 June 2018 shows migrants aboard the NGO's rescue vessel 'Lifeline' in the Mediterranean, 25 June 2018. Members of the German parliament Bundestag on 25 June reported from their visit to the ship saying they witnessed a 'catastrophic' situation. Both Italy and Malta deny the ship an entry to one of their country's ports.  EPA/Felix Weiss / HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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A rescue boat stranded for days in the Mediterranean carrying over 200 migrants was still waiting Wednesday for permission to dock in Malta, pending a deal between a group of EU nations to take in a share of those on board.

Lifeline, a German NGO vessel, has been waiting to be allocated a port for six days after rescuing 234 migrants off the coast of Libya last Thursday.

In a tweet, the organisation said it had renewed its request for permission to dock in Malta overnight, adding that many passengers were suffering from seasickness and three were in the ship's hospital facility. One passenger has been evacuated, leaving 233 currently on board.

On Wednesday the boat was given permission "to enter Maltese waters" to shelter from deteriorating weather conditions and high winds, the charity tweeted.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was due to give a press conference later in the day.

After days of bickering over the migrants' fate, five EU nations - Italy, Malta, France, Portugal and Spain - gave the green light to take in a share of those on board, according to Italian media.

Rescued migrants sit in the search and rescue ship of German aid group Mission Lifeline as the boat remained stranded off Malta with 234 migrants aboard and no port at which to dock after both Italy and Malta refused to give authorization, early Monday, June 25, 2018. Since taking office at the beginning of the month, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has launched a crackdown on private European-flagged rescue ships. (Mission Lifeline via AP)

The press reports said Germany, however, had not agreed to participate in the deal, a stance which the NGO co-founder blamed on the country's hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Wednesday.

"If the situation on the ship will escalate in the next hours due to exhaustion and weakness of the people rescued and the overall worsening weather conditions, it is entirely the responsibility of Mr Seehofer to bare the consequences," said Axel Steier.

Seehofer has taken a strong stance on immigration and given German Chancellor Angela Merkel an ultimatum to curb arrivals to Germany.

Mission Lifeline also hit back at criticism levelled at it Tuesday by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said the charity had contravened "all the rules" by rescuing the migrants when the Libya coast guard was already intervening.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) speaks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during a round table meeting at an informal EU summit on migration at EU headquarters in Brussels on June 24, 2018. EU leaders headed to Brussels for emergency talks over migration as Italy's new populist cabinet turned away another rescue ship, vowing no longer to shoulder Europe's migrant burden. / AFP / Geert Vanden Wijngaert

He accused Mission Lifeline of "playing into the hands of smugglers by reducing the risks of the journey, adding "we cannot permanently accept this situation."

But, in a statement Wednesday the charity denied breaking the law.

"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."


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The vessel's fate has hung 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.

The ship had rescued the migrants, including children and pregnant women, on Thursday but Malta and Italy initially refused to take them in.

However, Valletta agreed Tuesday to let the ship dock once other EU states confirmed they would help.

But Malta also warned it would launch an investigation and possibly take action against the Lifeline once it entered Maltese waters.

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini quickly hailed the news that a second migrant ship he had turned away would be 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.

Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini gestures during a press conference in Rome, on June 25, 2018. Salvini said the Lifeline rescue ship which belongs to German NGO Lifeline and which is currently stranded in Maltese waters with more than 200 migrants on board will not be allowed to dock in Italy. / AFP / TIZIANA FABI

The decision by Italy's new hardline government and Malta to turn away rescue vessels has plunged Europe into a political crisis over how to collectively handle the huge numbers of people fleeing war and misery in 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.