Stranded migrants disembark in Malta after EU deal reached

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said deal succumbs to blackmail of people smugglers

epaselect epa07271485 Migrants who had been stranded on two NGO rescue ships off the coast of Malta for several days arrive on the Maltese Armed Forces vessel P52, at the Armed Forces of Malta maritime base at Hay Wharf, in Floriana, Malta, 09 January 2019. The 49 migrants were transferred from the two NGO vessels Sea-Watch 3 and Professor Albrecht Penck and brought to Malta before being redistributed to eight European Union countries. The private rescue vessels had picked up 32 migrants on 22 December 2018, and further 17 migrants on 29 December 2019 respectively, but had been denied entry in European ports after refusing to hand over the migrants to the Libyan Coast Guard.  EPA/DOMENIC AQUILINA
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After more than two weeks stranded onboard two private rescue ships in the Mediterranean, 49 migrants who sailed from the coast of Libya in December have arrived in the Maltese capital of Valletta after a number of EU member states agreed to take them in.

The ships Sea-Watch 3 and Sea-Eye, operated by German NGOs, were allowed to dock in Valletta, after Malta brokered a deal to end a standoff that will see the migrants transferred to eight European countries. Malta allowed the two ships to shelter from bad weather and be resupplied, but it had until now refused to let those on board disembark.

The eight countries include Italy after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the Five Star Movement, backed the agreement, sparking the fury of coalition partner and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

The deal will also result in the eight countries - Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, the Netherlands and Luxembourg - taking in 249 other people brought to Malta by its military patrol boats in December.

Mr Salvini, who was in Poland on Wednesday to strike an European alliance with the leaders of the autocratic ruling party Law and Justice, slammed the agreement saying he "absolutely" opposed new migrant arrivals in Italy.

In what critics are viewing as an act of political mutiny, Mr Salvini threatened to use his position to oppose the decision.

“I won’t authorise migrant arrivals,” he said during a press conference in Warsaw with his Polish counterpart. He added that the EU was “succumbing to the blackmail of [people] smugglers and NGOs. This risks becoming a huge problem.”


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Mr Conte, who initially tried to reach a compromise by suggesting Italy would only accept children and women, said that if Mr Salvini were to prevent migrants from being transferred by sea, he would personally take them to Italy by plane.

It is also unlikely that Mr Salvini will have the political authority to effectively prevent the deal.

The incident – which saw the 49 migrants, including several children, stranded at sea over Christmas – reopened the debate on the European Union’s immigration policies.

"The past weeks have not been Europe's finest hour... If human values and solidarity are not upheld, then it is not Europe," EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said.

Sea Watch International spoke of the 49 migrants as “hostages” and welcomed the decision to allow them to reach a safe port.

Amnesty International's Southern Europe researcher Elisa De Pieri said “the dangerous, unseemly spectacle of politicians bickering whilst women, men and children are stranded in a sea of cruel indifference, must not be repeated".

However, evidence suggests the opposite is likely. Europe is currently facing its most significant refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War, with over 4 million refugees displaced by fighting in Syria alone.

Talk of a migrant quota have stoked controversy, with France announcing it will not accept more than 30,000 refugees and some eastern European countries refusing to let migrants in altogether.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel believes the future of Schengen – the area of free movement between 26 European states - is hinging on it.