Malta will allow the rescue ship Lifeline dock after Italy refused it entry, ending the vessel’s near-week-long wait in the Mediterranean with more than 230 migrants on board, Italy’s prime minister said.
Lifeline said one person was evacuated for medical reasons and general conditions aboard were worsening.
Malta’s offer resolved a standoff with Rome, where a new government co-led by the anti-immigrant League party, announced it will no longer let in charity ships that rescue migrants. The ships cover the sea route to Italy, where thousands of refugees died in recent years.
Mission Lifeline, the aid group running the ship, welcomed Malta’s offer but said on Twitter “we now need EU countries to welcome the people.”
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said his Maltese counterpart Joseph Muscat told him about his decision in a phone call.
Lifeline spent five days in international waters. After reaching Malta, migrants will be divided among European Union members willing to take them in, Conte said. He did not say when it would arrive.
“Italy will do its part and welcome some migrants who are on board Lifeline in the hope other European countries do the same,” he said.
Conte said the ship would then be impounded and its captain investigated over reports he ignored instructions to let the Libyan coastguard pick up the migrants.
The Maltese government issued a statement opening the possibility of allowing the ship to dock, but not confirming it and confirming possible legal action against its crew.
“In the event the vessel enters Maltese ports, there will be investigations and possible action taken in regards to the MV Lifeline,” it said.
An ad hoc agreement was being negotiated to distribute migrants among willing EU countries, the statement said. Four member states confirmed participation and two more were considering it, the statement said.
It did not name the countries, but French President Emmanuel Macron later said France would be one. At a news conference during a visit to Rome, Macron welcomed the “sense of responsibility” shown by Muscat.
Immigration is an urgent political issue across Europe, since a new government took power in Italy and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition split over the issue.
Europe took in more than a million migrants, mainly asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, in 2015. Since then, the numbers have fallen.
One main route, from Turkey to Greece, was largely shut in 2016, and numbers fell to tens of thousands so far this year, a 77% decline on 2017, when almost 120,000 came to Italy.
The issue still divides European governments and has led to a surge in anti-immigrant and far-right political movements across the continent.
Countries that have taken in large numbers of asylum seekers want other European Union countries to share the burden. Eastern European states, which have taken in some of the fewest, refuse to accept more and turned the issue into a central focus for nationalist governments.
Leaders of the EU on Sunday failed to come up with a joint position to tackle migration and will try again at a summit at the end of this week.
Malta denied charity ship Aquarius access to its port for resupply and a crew change, without providing any explanation for the decision, humanitarian group Doctors without Borders said on Twitter.
A private Danish cargo ship, the Alexander Maersk, carrying more than 100 rescued migrants and not covered by Italy’s ban on charity ships, was permitted to dock in Pozzallo, Sicily.