Malta OKs transfer of 65 migrants from German ship to port

Police officers watch as the Italian NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans' Alex migrant rescue ship carrying 46 migrants rescued off Libya coasts, docks in the port of Lampedusa, Sicily island, Italy, Saturday, July 6, 2019. (Elio Desiderio/ANSA via AP)

ROME (AP) — Malta’s government has agreed to help 65 rescued migrants by transferring them from a German-operated rescue boat to a Maltese military vessel that will take them to a Maltese port.

Malta announced the decision on Sunday afternoon after talks with the European Commission and the German government, while the rescue ship Alan Kurdi was waiting for permission to enter Malta’s territorial waters.

The Maltese government said in a statement that “all the rescued persons on board will be immediately relocated to other European Union member states. None of the said immigrants will remain in Malta as this case was not under the responsibility of the Maltese authorities.”

The agreement was reached after the vessel operated by German non-profit Sea-Eye decided to head to Malta late on Saturday, after being banned from docking in the Italian port of Lampedusa.

The decision to change course to Malta came hours after an Italian rescue ship of humanitarian group Mediterranea disobeyed Italian orders and docked in Lampedusa. The over 40 migrants on board were allowed to disembark on Saturday night after the boat was seized by police.

The German ship then asked Maltese authorities to provide a safe harbor as soon as possible, as three people on board had collapsed for the heat.

Malta responded that the three migrants in need of urgent medical assistance will be immediately evacuated.

The Sea-Eye’s vessel had rescued 65 people from an overloaded rubber boat in international waters off the Libyan coast earlier this week, but wasn’t allowed to enter Italian waters.

Italy’s hard-line interior minister Matteo Salvini has introduced a tough stance on migration, accusing NGOs operating in the Mediterranean of helping smugglers of migrants.

Last week, a 17-day standoff between Italy and a rescue ship ended when the German captain defied orders and forced her way to a dock in Lampedusa’s main port. She is under investigation for disobeying orders and allegedly aiding illegal immigration.

Salvini’s refusal to open Italian ports to rescue boats has strained relationships with European partners and Malta, which along with Italy is the preferred destination for migrants trying to enter Europe by sea.

In a sign of recognition to the goodwill of the Maltese government, European Union member states will also take at least half of the 58 migrants rescued in a separate operation by Malta’s armed forces, the Maltese government said in Sunday’s statement.