Update 3: Malta, Italy In New Migrants Standoff

Update 3: Malta, Italy in new migrants standoff
Malta insists it cannot take migrants rescued closer to Italy

The Times Of Malta
Friday, 17th April 2009 – 13:37CET

(A map showing the position of the Pinar E when it rescued the migrants yesterday afternoon.)

(Adds details, PL's statement, government's statement)

A Turkish cargo ship with 154 migrants on board has been refused entry in Lampedusa but Malta is also refusing landing.

The migrants were picked up 41 nautical miles off Lampedusa (114 from Malta) but the ship has been refused entry into Italian waters by the Italian authorities, who are insisting the migrants should be brought to Malta, which is responsible for the search and rescue region.

Malta is insisting, however, that in terms of international conventions, the migrants have to be landed at the nearest safe port, which in this case is Lampedusa.

The Armed Forces of Malta reported that the Pinar E, a Turkish owned Panamian flagged ship en route to Sfax was yesterday followed by two boats with migrants. Malta informed the vessel that if the migrants were in distress, it was bound by international obligations to assist them and take them to the nearest safe haven, in this case Lampedusa.

The crew of the Pinar E reported that the migrants appeared aggressive and nervous and there could be injured people on board and at around 5 p.m., the merchant vessel took two boatloads of migrants on board, including a pregnant woman and 25 injured individuals, with seven requiring urgent medical aid, some with fractured limbs. All needed food and water.

As Italian authorities informed Malta that they had no assets available capable of arriving in the area to render assistance, MRCC Rome informed the AFM that the rescued migrants were to head towards Malta. Soon after, the Italian authorities instructed the Pinar E not to enter their territorial waters, and that an Italian naval vessel was being dispatched to ensure this.

The merchant vessels master reiterated that they had injured migrants onboard in a bad condition, and they requested medical supplies from Italian authorities. The Italian authorities then directed the vessel to proceed to its next port of call in Sfax, Tunisia.

As medical supplies promised by the Italian authorities were being dispatched, the merchant vessel was then again directed by them to proceed to Malta.

In their attempt to maintain their obligations as per international law, the Pinar E informed the Italian authorities that it would still proceed to Lampedusa, insisting that there were rescued persons onboard needing assistance. The Italian authorities restated that Pinar E was not authorised to enter Italian waters, and directed the merchant vessel to a position 24 NM south west of Lampedusa, to receive a doctor via an Italian navy corvette.

The Italian navy corvette said that inclement weather in the area last night prevented this transfer operation to take place, and they maintained a one to two NM distance from the merchant vessel.

At around noon today, the dispatched Italian navy corvette winch-hoisted a doctor onto the merchant vessel.

In a similar case on March 16, Malta had refused entry to an Italian frigate which also rescued migrants 40 miles off Lampedusa. They were later taken to Italy.

Meanwhile, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni this morning accused Malta of not taking its responsibilities on migration and instead dumping the migrants on Italy.

In tough language, Minister Maroni said that relations between Malta and Italy had taken a bad turn recently over this issue and said that he has asked EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot to intervene and convince Malta to assume its responsibilities.

But Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, who was speaking in an unrelated press conference, said that Italys objections were unacceptable.

While he understood that Italy has its immigration problems to face, the Maltese government could not accept immigrants found closer to Italian ports, he said.

A few days ago The Times revealed that Frontex has postponed its planned anti-migration patrol mission in the Sicily-Malta-Libya strait due to this dispute.

Italy is insisting that all illegal immigrants found during this mission should be taken to Malta even if they are closer to Lampedusa, while Malta is insisting that they should be taken to the closest safe port and not all brought to Malta. Speaking during a conference in Italy this morning, following questions sent to the Italian Interior Ministry by The Times yesterday, Minister Maroni said that Malta is not intervening to save immigrants.

The areas related to the responsibility of search and rescue are well defined but in many cases Malta is not intervening, leaving this responsibility to Italy. Last year we had to do this 80 times. I have now referred the issue to the EU to make sure that who has the responsibility does his duty. If not we should change the rules,” Minister Maroni said.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said that for the past 45 years Italy has been respecting an arrangement stating that immigrants saved at sea were to taken in by the closest port of call. Italy was now trying to change the rules and this was a no can do.

“Italy cannot expect to solve its immigration problems by dumping them on Malta” Dr Mifsud Bonnici said.

In a statement, the government said it was apparent that Mr Maroni was not being correctly informed by his officials.

“The Maltese government would like to emphasise that Malta has always honoured its international obligations in accordance with international law. Malta has always co-ordinated the search and rescue operations, carried out within the Search and Rescue Area falling under its responsibility, in strict adherence of its obligations, namely that it coordinates maritime search and rescue operations and that rescued persons are to be disembarked at the nearest safe port”

Last year, the Malta Rescue Coordination Centre of the Armed Forces of Malta coordinated 380 migrant cases, apart from many other cases involving merchant shipping, pleasure and fishing industry. These figures, the government said, provided more than ample proof of Maltas strict adherence to its international obligations.

“Minister Maroni seems to be mixing up the obligations that a State has to coordinate search and rescue operations within its Search and Rescue Region with the obligation that a State has in rendering assistance to a vessel in distress. Such obligation is not related at all to the Search and Rescue Region.

“The Maltese government would like to reiterate that Malta is abiding by the international law as applicable to Malta. It will continue to abide by these international obligations to the full, but cannot and will not carry burdens that are clearly not its own,” it said.

In a statement, the Labour Party said the standoff between Malta and Italy confirmed the need for the plan of action proposed by the Labour Party.

The party insisted that, under no circumstance, could the immigrants be accepted in Malta. The government, it said, should not give in to the Italian government's pressure or to the threat that the case would be taken to the European Union. The PL promised its support should the government take this course of action.

Malta, the PL said, had suffered enough because of the lack of goodwill at an international level and the time had come for the national interest to come first and foremost.