Over 400 rescued migrants stranded off Malta's coast

Malta has closed off its ports to sea migrants, and is keeping them quarantined off its coast on chartered cruise boats.

    The numbers of migrants kept at sea swelled last week to past 400, with the latest sea rescue on May 27 [File: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]
    The numbers of migrants kept at sea swelled last week to past 400, with the latest sea rescue on May 27 [File: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]

    More than 400 migrants are living aboard pleasure cruise vessels off Malta's coast, many of them for weeks now, and the country is breaking international law by delaying their disembarkation, an NGO said.

    Rescued from human traffickers' unseaworthy boats in several operations in the central Mediterranean since late April, the migrants are waiting for European Union countries to offer to take them in. 

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    So far, only France has stepped forward, pledging to accept some of the refugees and migrants.

    In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Malta has closed off its ports to sea migrants, and is keeping them quarantined off its coast on chartered cruise boats.

    "Some of these survivors, who have gone through the most perilous journeys after having fled extreme violence and abuse in Libya, have been held on board these boats - which are unsuitable for long stays - for more than a month," the SOS Mediterranee charity said.

    "Instead of disembarking them in a safe place as international law requires, those rescued at sea are being used for political negotiations with EU member states," it added. 

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    Malta's government has accused other EU countries of breaking promises to take in migrants rescued at sea as part of burden-sharing arrangements.

    SOS Mediterranee said a lack of EU action means that more migrants die in unreported shipwrecks or are intercepted and illegally sent back to Libya, where they risk torture and abuse. 

    On Tuesday, some of the migrants could be seen walking on deck.

    Their laundry hung from improvised clotheslines. Maltese armed forces, arrayed in boats, were keeping watch on the four vessels usually used for pleasure excursions to ferry tourists to the tiny Mediterranean island nation's attractions.

    The small flotilla of tourist boats was about 23 kilometres (14 miles) off shore.

    This week, Malta announced it will reopen to tourism on July 1.

    Malta has registered 620 known cases of COVID-19. About 50 of those coronavirus infections were in migrants in one of its reception centres on land.

    SOURCE: News agencies