Updated with statements by Adrian Delia, bishops.
An agreement has finally been reached on a deal which will see a group of 49 long-suffering migrants disembarking in Malta from two NGO rescue ships for distribution among eight EU countries.
Most of the 249 migrants brought to Malta by AFM patrol boats in December will also be taken to other EU countries.
The agreement was announced on Wednesday morning by Prime minister Joseph Muscat.
“220 persons will be relocated to other member states or be returned to their county of origin” Dr Muscat said.
The migrants will be shared with Germany, France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy.
Most of the group of 49 migrants, including women and young children, were rescued by the MV Sea Watch three days before Christmas.
Others were picked up by the MV Sea Eye. The rescues were made between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa but Italy refused to open its harbours for the ships.
Malta did likewise, but last week allowed the vessels to enter its waters for shelter as the weather deteriorated.
Sea Watch on Sunday described how the situation was deteriorating dramatically, with food and water running short and the migrants getting dehydrated and demoralised.
Malta had insisted that since the rescues did not take place in its area of competence, it should not be held responsible for the migrants.
Pope Francis on Sunday joined the international community calling for effective solidarity with the stranded migrants.
The Malta government was involved in talks coordinated by the European Commission, aimed at finding a country of refuge for the migrants.
The Malta government also insisting that 249 migrants rescued by patrol boats of the AFM and landed in Malta, should also be shared among a number of EU countries.
Dr Muscat said the migrants on the two rescue ships will be transferred to AFM patrol boats and the two vessels will then be told to leave Maltese waters.
44 Bangladeshi migrants who were among the 249 rescued by Malta will be repatriated, with assistance by the EU.
Dr Muscat thanked the EU and those member states involved in the relation exercise for their solidarity.
“Every hour that passed without a solution is not an hour I was proud of. The solution was not found by the EU, but by some EU members,” Dr Muscat said.
Asked whether the 49 migrants rescued by the NGOs were made to wait while an agreement was reached re the other 249, Dr Muscat replied: “To be very blunt, no one asked the two ships to come to Malta. When the rescue took place they were not next to Malta, but Libya. One argues that Libya is not a safe place, but they were next to two other safe places – Tunisia and Italy. Definitely not in Maltese waters, so I think it is unfair to say that someone was made to wait when no one asked them to come.
It is unfair to say that someone was made to wait when no one asked them to come– Prime Minister
“Secondly, it’s not a free for all. There are rules and as a prime minister I cannot be expected to say yes to everything all the time. There are rules and from our side we wanted a clear political sign that adhering to the rules is appreciated. If you want to say that they were made to wait until a solution was reached, yes, but in the end we did not create the problem ourselves.
Asked to clarify a comment about NGOs creating problems, he said EU member states and NGOs both need to abide by the rules. Member states could not refuse entry or rescue if it was within their responsibility, while on the other hand NGOs need to obey the orders of the competent authorities.
“If one goes amiss – either member states or NGOs try to do it themselves, then we are in for considerable problems in the next few months.”
NGOs welcome resolution
In a joint statement, 62 NGOs welcomed Malta’s decision to allow the disembarkation of the 49 migrants rescued by the NGO boats.
“We also appreciate the solidarity expressed by other Member States and institutions of the European Union, in agreeing to share the responsibility of hosting the rescued migrants. Such sharing of responsibilities is essential if the EU is to deal effectively with forced migration in a manner that is fair and respectful of fundamental human rights,” they said.
They said all the migrants should be granted full access to asylum procedures so they would be able to get the protection that they needed.
They also hoped that the situation seen over the past days would not be repeated and that respect for life and human dignity would remain at
the heart of Malta’s approach towards refugees and migrants.
Adrian Delia satisfied 49 lives have been spared
In a short video comment to the Nationalist Party’s NET News shortly after Dr Muscat’s press conference, Opposition leader Adrian Delia said he was satisfied that 49 human lives had been spared.
The PN had been following this case closely and had even raised the matter at EU-level through its political grouping the European People’s Party.
Dr Delia said he had also repeatedly raised the issue in recent months when travelling to Brussels and at other summits and political gatherings.
Bishops appreciate solidarity ‘finally’ shown with stranded migrants
The bishops of Malta and Gozo expressed their appreciation to the Maltese government, the European Commission and the eight European countries for the solidarity they “finally” showed with the 49 stranded migrants.
“We are also grateful to all the organisations that have promoted concrete solidarity with the people involved. We recognise that Malta, the smallest EU member state, was neither the responsible authority nor the nearest port of safety when these migrants were rescued, and laud the efforts made by all parties involved to ensure that human life prevails over every other interest.”
The bishops joined Dr Muscat in thanking the European Commission for providing a solution for this crisis by coordinating the initiative of the relocation of migrants, including the 249 persons rescued at sea by the Armed Forces of Malta.
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