Aid ship docks in Malta with 234 refugees, ending extended journey

A humanitarian rescue ship blocked at sea for nearly a week as European nations quibbled over its fate arrived in Malta Wednesday evening to disembark 234 migrants, ending Europe’s second impasse in recent weeks over the fate of people saved at sea amid rising political resistance to their welcome.

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 vests, 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 and a Maltese flag as a courtesy for allowing the ship to dock.

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

While Muscat emphasized 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 the focus.

Earlier this month, Italy and Malta both refused port to a French humanitarian ship, 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 covering everyone on board. On Wednesday, Malta allowed the ship to enter its waters to seek shelter from rough sea conditions, before announcing it could dock.

Once settled, the migrant will be vetted to determine if they are eligible for political asylum or if they are economic migrants to be sent back to their countries of origin, Muscat said. A French official will join the operation, and Muscat said any of the other countries offering refuge were welcome to participate.

Muscat said Malta had no legal obligation to act since the rescue happened in Libyan waters, but said it was willing to act “before the situation escalates to a humanitarian crisis.”

The eight countries to accept vetted migrants from the ship are France, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Malta itself. It was unclear how many each would take.

Lifeline said that along with the worsening weather, some migrants were in fragile health. One migrant was airlifted to Malta several days ago.

Manuel Sarrazin, a lawmaker with the German Green party who is in regular contact with the crew and its supporters, said the situation on board the Lifeline had been deteriorating.

Tuesday night “they were close to calling emergencies to evacuate two people,” Sarrazin told the AP. “Doctors on board were able to stabilize them so the evacuation, which would have been very dangerous, didn’t have to take place.” He said the passengers were suffering from severe sea sickness due to rough seas.

The standoff 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.