Malta has reached a deal with other EU member states to allow 49 migrants aboard two rescue ships off the coast of the island nation to disembark, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Wednesday.
“An ad hoc agreement has been reached,” Muscat told journalists, adding that the deal also included a decision on the fate of 249 rescued migrants already in Malta.
The 49 migrants, including a baby and several children, were rescued while attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Europe.
Muscat said that of the total of 298 migrants, 176 would be sent to Germany, France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy.
Another 78 will be allowed to stay in Malta, and 44 Bangladeshi migrants will be sent back to their country.
The migrants have been stranded off the coast of Malta on the Sea-Watch and another boat since late last year, with no country allowing them to dock, suffering sea sickness and dehydration, with some briefly refusing food.
They have been unable to disembark because of a diplomatic deadlock among EU member states, despite an appeal by Pope Francis on Sunday for EU leaders to show solidarity.
On Tuesday Malta appeared to further raise the stakes, saying that any deal on the fate of the 49 must include that of the 249 rescued migrants already on the island.
“Malta never closed its ports and it is still a safe port,” said Muscat, who has previously complained that his country has to bear an unfair share of migrant numbers.
“We wanted to send a strong political message that the burden must be shared because it is a European issue… Every hour that passed without a solution was not an hour I was proud of,” he said.
Sea Watch International welcomed that “the EU decided to release their 49 hostages. After 19 days at sea, our guests will finally reach a safe port.”
“This represents a confession of state failure, policy must not be made at the expense of people in distress,” the NGO said.
“We want to express our gratitude to… all cities, federal states and provinces that declared their ports open and their willingness to welcome people.”
The migrants will be transferred from the Sea-Watch 3 and Albrecht Penck ships to Maltese coastguard vessels “as soon as possible”, Muscat said.
“I reiterate, as I did before, that this case shall not act as a precedent,” he added.
Migrants rescued by ships have frequently been left in limbo since Italy’s populist anti-immigration government began turning them away last summer.
Since coming to power more than six months ago, the Italian government has also been demanding greater solidarity from reluctant fellow EU states.
But EU members have failed to agree on a permanent mechanism to relocate migrants who reach Europe’s shores, even though arrivals have dropped sharply since a peak more than three years ago.
Following Wednesday’s deal, Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accused the European Commission of “facilitating the work of smugglers and NGOs”.
“I am and will remain absolutely against new arrivals in Italy… Giving in to the pressures and threats of Europe and NGOs is a sign of weakness.”
Some 113,482 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe last year, according to the UN refugee agency, which said 2,262 people lost their lives or went missing making the perilous journey.