Malta plans to keep 57 rescued migrants aboard a private ship anchored outside territorial waters until the European Union finds a way to rehouse them, Prime Minister Robert Abela said.
The migrants were plucked from a dinghy last week in Malta’s search and rescue zone by a commercial fishing vessel chartered by the Maltese government to intercept possible asylum seekers.
The group were transferred to a launch used for tourist cruises, with the EU agreeing to pay for the operation until a decision is made on where the men should go, Abela said.
“This is not Malta’s problem, although we are doing more than expected. Other EU member states must shoulder the burden too. Malta and Italy cannot be left alone,” Abela told a news conference.
“We closed our ports and airport to cruise passengers and tourists and it does not make sense to let migrants in,” he said, referring to restrictions to halt the spread of coronavirus.
Abela said “hundreds of thousands” of people were in Libya, waiting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy or Malta.
“We will be firm in our commitment not to open our ports,” he said, adding he was “not satisfied” with the EU response over handling the latest newcomers.
Malta saw a surge of migrant arrivals at the start of the year, with 1 500 reaching the country by early March, against 3 400 for 2019. Government says its reception centres are full and complains EU allies do not follow through on pledges to take migrants.
When the coronavirus hit in March, Malta employed private boats to intercept migrants.
The NGO group Alarm Phone said on one occasion a migrant boat was left adrift before a contracted fishing vessel drew alongside, with 12 people starving as they awaited help.
Maltese magistrates are investigating the case.
Fifty survivors were picked up from the boat and taken back to Libya.
The UN said Libya is not a safe port because of long-running conflict and previously said forcing boat migrants to return would breach international law.
Abela said his government had done no wrong.
He said international law obliged states to co-ordinate sea rescues, but did not order them to use own navies for these missions. With Malta ports closed, migrants were taken to an open port in Libya.
“It is our duty to protect the national interest and balance that with our obligations,” he said.