VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta on Friday rescued a group of 140 migrants from a sinking dinghy but refused to bring them to land, holding them instead on a chartered tourist harbour cruise boat just outside territorial waters.
The rescue was conducted by a Maltese patrol boat in the early hours of Friday after the dinghy drifted into Malta’s search and rescue region.
The migrants were transferred to the tourist boat on Friday afternoon. They join another two tourist boats chartered for the same purpose by the government just over two weeks ago and holding another 160 migrants.
The government has insisted it will not allow any migrants to land in Malta, saying other European Union nations have not kept promises to take migrants already brought to the island.
Prime Minister Robert Abela has also told the European Union than once Malta’s airport and harbours have been closed to tourists, they will not be open to migrants.
The government confirmed on Friday, however, that a group of 19 including children, their parents and pregnant women who had been among the newly rescued migrants have been brought to Malta for humanitarian reasons.
Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo in a statement on Thursday said Malta’s migration centres are holding twice the number of people they were designed for and Malta was at the mercy of people smugglers.
“We want to protect the rights of people seeking protection, but we can only do so much. We are being left alone. Words of sympathy are not enough, we need practical help,” he said referring to the EU.
Only 8% of migrant arrivals had been distributed to the EU over the years, he said. Of 1,500 this year, only France and Portugal had pledged to take migrants, just 36. Malta, he said, was protecting an EU external border, but “we cannot become European Union’s crisis centre.”
He warned that the situation in Libya was worsening and the migration problem, therefore, was likely to also worsen over the coming months.
On May 8 Malta pressed its demand for EU migration action by warning that it will vote to freeze financing for a naval mission monitoring arms traffic into Libya.
It also told the EU that it would no longer commit a landing party to form part of the mission, known as Operation Irini.
Reporting by Chris Scicluna