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The New Arab

Malta and France agree to take 100 migrants after standoff

Italy insisted Malta should have opened its ports to the ship [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 July, 2018

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Malta and France agreed to take 100 of the 450 migrants who were rescued from a fishing boat in the Mediterranean, claiming victory in the latest standoff.

Italian authorities confirmed on Saturday that Malta and France had agreed to take 100 of the 450 migrants who were rescued from a fishing boat in the Mediterranean, claiming victory in the latest standoff but demanding even greater European solidarity.

Premier Giuseppe Conte said Malta and France had come forward in response to his request to all 27 other members of the European Union to share the burden of welcoming the migrants.

"It's an important result," Conte wrote on Facebook, along with a copy of the letter he wrote to top European Commission officials demanding that other European countries make good on their verbal pledges to help Italy deal with the influx.

The migrants had been aboard a large fishing boat when the Italian and Maltese coast guard control centres began squabbling over who was responsible for taking them in on Friday.

Malta said it had fulfilled its obligations by monitoring the vessel to see if it needed help.It also said the ship's crew made clear they didn't need help and were heading toward the Italian island of Lampedusa.

But Italy insisted Malta should have opened its ports to the ship.

Early on Saturday, the migrants were taken off the boat and transferred onto a rescue vessel from the EU border patrol agency Frontex and a ship from the Italian border police.

The Maltese government said Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had agreed to participate in the migrant relocation initiative, similar to one involving the Lifeline ship of a German aid group several weeks ago.

But he stressed that Malta at all times followed international law.

The move comes after Italy's new populist government defiantly declared that its ports were closed to foreign-flagged rescue ships, after accusing fellow EU members of failing to share the burden of migrant arrivals.

Earlier this month Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini triggered an EU-wide row when he barred the French charity-run Aquarius rescue ship, carrying 630 migrants, from docking in Italy. The move was echoed by nearby Malta and the ship was later welcomed by Spain.

'Friendship treaty'

Italy and Malta say they are unfairly bearing the brunt of the new arrivals, while other European countries are urging more forceful policies to block their entry.

Italy reactivated a decade-old 'friendship treaty' last week that allows it to return migrants to Libyan territory.

The 2008 treaty was signed by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and Italy's then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, as the North African country and its former coloniser sought to improve ties.

The deal was suspended in February 2011, after the start of the uprising that saw Gaddafi removed from power and killed.

The original treaty envisaged unlocking $5 billion of Italian investment in Libya as compensation for decades of colonisation.  

In exchange, Libya would work to stop illegal migrants embarking from its shores - and receive those sent back to the North African country, a clause lambasted by human rights activists.   

During Gaddafi's rule, thousands of migrants crossed Libya's nearly 3,000 miles of land borders in attempts to reach the Mediterranean and cross to Europe.

The flow of migrants through Libya surged after Gaddafi was toppled and killed in 2011, with smugglers exploiting the country's chaos to send tens of thousands of people each year across a 185-mile stretch of the Mediterranean to Italian territory.

At least 34,000 people have died trying to reach Europe from across the Mediterranean since 1993, most from drowning, according to figures released in June.

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