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Sunday 9 December 2018

Rescue ship docks in Malta after seven countries agree to take refugees

Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat announced earlier that the ship would be allowed to reach safe haven.

Migrants wait to be disembarked from the ship (Jonathan Borg/AP)
Migrants wait to be disembarked from the ship (Jonathan Borg/AP)

By Colleen Barry and Stephen Calleja

A humanitarian rescue ship blocked at sea for nearly a week as European nations argued over its fate has arrived in Malta to disembark 234 migrants.

Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat announced earlier that the ship would be allowed to reach safe haven in Malta after seven other countries also agreed to take in those deemed eligible for refugee status.

He also said that the ship operated by a German aid group would be immediately impounded and the crew placed under investigation for allegedly operating illegally, including violating rescue orders and operating without proper registration.

On the ship’s approach, migrants crowded the deck wearing orange life jackets, many waving, as it entered the main port in Valletta under escort by a Malta patrol boat.

The commander of the ship operated by the German aid group Mission Lifeline sounded the boat’s horn with two long blasts to salute the migrants after their shared journey, and raised a yellow flag to signal permission to authorities to board.

One by one, the migrants were escorted off by officials and medical personnel in white overalls and gloves.

A girl in pink shorts no more than five years old — one of five children on the ship — was cradled gingerly by an official. One man walked unsteadily, leaning on a helper, while another wearing shorts and a white polo shirt was barefoot and wrapped in a red blanket.

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Malta’s PM Joseph Muscat (AP)

While Mr Muscat emphasised that the Lifeline case was unique because of the alleged violations of the crew, the refusal by Italy and Malta to open their ports to the ship – and the haggling among EU states over how to distribute the migrants – showed a hardening of positions as EU leaders head into a summit where migration policies are expected to be debated.

Earlier this month, Italy and Malta both refused port to French humanitarian ship the Aquarius, forcing some 630 migrants to travel an additional 900 miles to Spain.

The fate of the ship operated by the German group had appeared resolved a day earlier when Italy announced it would take some of the migrants and Malta would open its ports.

But Malta later said the ship was not welcome until it had a deal for all of the migrants on board. On Wednesday, Malta allowed the ship to enter its waters to seek shelter from rough sea conditions, before announcing it could dock.

Lifeline said that along with the worsening weather, some migrants were in fragile health.

Manuel Sarrazin, an MP with the German Green party who is in regular contact with the crew and its supporters, said the situation on board the Lifeline was deteriorating.

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A wounded migrant is helped off the ship (Jonathan Borg/AP)

He said: “Last night they were close to calling emergencies to evacuate two people.

“Doctors on board were able to stabilise them so the evacuation, which would have been very dangerous, didn’t have to take place.”

Mr Sarrazin added that the passengers are suffering from severe sea sickness due to rough seas.

“They are at risk of dehydration. It’s been clear for days that the situation could get worse. There needs to be a solution soon.”

The stand-off came ahead of an EU summit at which Italy will propose a new system for distributing migrants more evenly among EU countries along with ways to discourage economic migrants from leaving Africa.

Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of the arrivals in recent years as people make the dangerous sea journey to seek a better life in Europe, often fleeing war and oppression.

Press Association

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