VALLETTA, Malta (AP) —
Malta’s government on Friday defended its use of private vessels to save migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, including one mission in which a Maltese fishing boat reportedly returned rescued passengers to Libya, where detention camps are notorious for rights violations.
Prime Minister Robert Abela was asked by journalists about media reports that private boats were used in rescues instead of government vessels.
In one case, a fishing boat allegedly took the migrants, with five retrieved bodies aboard, to Libya, where migrant smugglers are based. In another case, migrants were rescued by a fishing vessel chartered by the Maltese government. They were then transferred to a boat usually used for pleasure cruises around Malta’s islands.
Maltese authorities say the migrants will stay on that boat in international waters until other European Union nations agree to take them. While speaking with reporters, Abela stopped short of saying the migrants would be returned to Libya.
Abela insisted Malta isn’t breaking international law by using private vessels for rescues.
“Nothing stops a state from using private assets,’’ the prime minister said. He added that the chartering operation will be paid for by the European Commission.
“We know our obligations and have always followed them, but we will remain firm in saying that our ports are not safe for the disembarkation of rescued people, and that we cannot guarantee the resources for such rescues," Abela said. Malta has closed its airport and ports to passengers as part of coronavirus containment measures.
Additionally, reception centers for migrants on the small island nation are full, and one is observing quarantine, since 50 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among its residents.
Malta, a country of some 490,000 people, has 467 confirmed coronavirus cases and four deaths.
Under a voluntary arrangement brokered by the European Union last year, many migrants rescued by Italy or Malta are to be distributed among willing EU nations while their asylum requests are processed. Most migrants in recent years who tried to reach Europe’s southern shores in unseaworthy boats have fled poverty, not persecution or war, and are frequently found ineligible for asylum.
On Friday, Maltese Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo shot back at critics. On his Facebook page, Bartolo wrote that “since 2005, other EU countries took only 1,700 of our irregular migrants, that is a miserly 8% of all those who were saved and brought to Malta.”