Malta has pulled 180 refugees to safety from two boats in distress, while 49 more are stuck in limbo at sea as the weather worsens in the Mediterranean.
An army patrol boat picked up 28 refugees from a dinghy on Monday some 130km southwest of Malta before plucking another 152 people from a wooden boat to the south.
The rescues followed the recovery by Malta on Sunday of 69 refugees on a wooden boat which had run into trouble.
Meanwhile, the UN’s refugee agency said time was “running out” for 49 people rescued by NGO boats but denied a safe port in Europe, some of whom have been stranded at sea for over a week.
The NGOs – German Sea-Eye and Dutch Sea-Watch – called for “an immediate solution for those being held hostage by European States, who are denying them a safe port”.
“With the weather conditions forecast to worsen this evening, a solution must be found by the end of 2018 in order to prevent placing people’s health at further risk,” they said in a joint statement.
The German-flagged Professor Albrecht Penck ship has 17 people from West Africa on board who were rescued from an unseaworthy boat on Saturday off the coast of Libya, including one woman and two children.
Sea-Eye said in a statement on Monday that “any delay poses a risk”.
At the same time, the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch has 32 people rescued on December 22 including three young children, three unaccompanied adolescents and four women from Nigeria, Libya and Ivory Coast.
While Italy, Malta, Spain and the Netherlands have refused to accept the Sea-Watch refugees, several German cities have offered to take them in.
On Saturday a government spokesperson said Germany would only accept some of the migrants if other European countries also agreed to do so.
Geneva-based UNHCR urged governments Monday to “urgently offer safe ports and disembarkation” and agree on a system that provides rescue ship captains with clarity about where refugees can disembark.
“The negotiations over which country takes them in must happen only once those rescued are brought safely to land,” UNHCR special envoy Vincent Cochetel said.
More than 1,300 refugees have died trying to reach Italy or Malta via the central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The Italian interior ministry said on Monday that the number of 2018 arrivals in Italy was down over 80 percent compared with 2017 at just 23,370.
The biggest number came from Tunisia, followed by Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
In mid-2017, departures from Libya dropped after a controversial deal between Italy and the war-torn North African country.
A campaign against the NGO rescue organisations peaked in June this year with far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini’s “closed-ports” policy aimed at ending all rescue operations, including military ones.