After being stranded at sea for 10 days, 11 migrants rescued by a Spanish fishing boat off Libya’s coast were brought to Malta Sunday, ending another European immigration stand-off after both the governments of Italy and Malta had initially refused the refugee-seekers.
The 11 asylum seekers, originally from Egypt, Niger, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan set out from Libya on a rubber dinghy when the Spanish fishing boat Santa Madre de Loreto rescued them in Libyan waters on Nov. 22, about 80 nautical miles from the African nation’s coast.
Spain initially urged Italy and Malta to take in the refugees, including two minors, saying their southern ports were closest to where the fishing boat was floating.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International also urged the two governments to receive the asylum seekers who were suffering from a lack of food and water.
“These people have risked their lives to escape human rights abuses in Libya and they should be disembarked without delay in the nearest place of safety in either Malta or Italy,” said Amnesty International’s Matteo de Bellis.
Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which has been assisting the boat and migrants aboard, said it would not have been safe to return the refugees to Libya.
On Sunday, the migrants were transferred from the ship Nuestra Madre de Loreto to a Maltese patrol boat which docked at the Valletta harbor.
However, Maltese government spokesman Kurt Farrugia told Reuters this was only a temporary solution for "humanitarian reasons," but that the refugees would be taken to Spain in due course.
"Malta had no obligation to take them because they were not picked up in Maltese waters and Malta was not the closest port," Farrugia insisted.
A young man among the group was flown to Malta by helicopter last Friday after he fell unconscious due to exhaustion and dehydration.
In a statement from Nov. 28, de Bellis denounced the European government practice of closing its ports which sends “a signal that people in danger at sea should be either abandoned there or sent back to Libya.”
The Amnesty International consultant said this is a “blatant disregard (of) both maritime and human rights law. … It is time for European governments to stop playing with human lives and share responsibility for receiving people seeking safety,” added the rights activist.
This is the latest scenario in which European leaders have left African refugees to float for several days in the Mediterranean refusing them entry to their ports.
Last August the SOS Mediterranee was forced to float at sea for several days with 141 refugees aboard before Malta accepted them. Similar incidents occurred in June, July, and September.
A UNHCR and the Missing Migrants Project study from July 2018 showed that, during the previous six months, 28 of every 1,000 migrants died trying to make the trip across the Mediterranean, similar to 2017 numbers. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found that of the 22,500 migrants who died making the journey between 2014 and 2017, over half of them perished while attempting to cross the sea that separates Europe and Africa.
The Spanish organization Proactiva Open Arms criticized the Spanish government’s urging Malta to take in the refugees, saying it was “late, wrong and unscrupulous."
On Sunday, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo rebutted in a statement: "From the beginning, the government has worked to ensure the boat, which is in international waters, goes to a safe and nearby port."
The Italian Insitute for International Politics says that people are leaving African countries, particularly Libya because of "political, economic, ... and environmental" reasons.