Malta takes in rescued migrants despite coronavirus ban

VALLETTA (Reuters) - - A group of North African migrants rescued from a sinking boat came ashore in Malta early on Friday, hours after the government had said no further groups would be allowed in after it closed its ports due to the coronavirus emergency.

Rescued migrants look on from inside a police bus after disembarking a military vessel which arrived in Senglea in Valletta's Grand Harbour, after an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Malta April 10, 2020. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

The 64 migrants were rescued by the Maltese armed forces from a boat inside the Malta rescue zone south of the island and brought ashore. On Thursday Malta had followed Italy, the country that has so far seen the most deaths from the epidemic, in announcing it would no longer allow migrant boats to land due to the risk of coronavirus infection.

The Maltese government said in a statement the armed forces had been monitoring the migrants for some hours before a patrol boat picked them up.

However, it said Malta could not guarantee further rescues and would not allow any further disembarkation of rescued persons because resources have been strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new arrivals were received by soldiers wearing bio-suits shortly after midnight. They will be kept in detention.

“It is in the interest, and is the responsibility, of such people not to endanger themselves on a risky voyage to a country which is not in a position to offer them a secure harbour,” the government said.

Malta has imposed a 14-day quarantine on all travellers entering the country, closed schools and told people to stay at home during the emergency.

It announced this week its first death from COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus, and had 319 active cases as of Thursday, according to government figures.

After a relative lull in arrivals of boat migrants from Africa, numbers had started to pick up again in the first two months of the year only to fall back sharply in March as Italy was hit by the coronavirus epidemic.

Before the crisis, ships operated by aid groups regularly patrolled the coast of Libya looking to rescue migrants from flimsy boats. Most have withdrawn but one ship operated by German charity Sea-Eye returned to the area last week and picked up 150 migrants on Monday.

With both Italy and Malta, the two nearest European countries, closed, it is unclear where they will be taken.

Reporting by Christopher Scicluna; Editing by Gareth Jones