[WATCH] Malta Cabinet declares island is no longer ‘safe port for asylum seekers’

Prime Minister Robert Abela says COVID-19 effort will not be diverted to rescue asylum seekers at sea

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

The Maltese government has unanimously approved a Cabinet decision to prevent migrant rescue charities and other vessels from bringing into Malta people rescued at sea, namely boat migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

The controversial decision mimics that taken by Italy, which struggling under the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down the entire country, is refusing to allow rescued migrants in its ports.

The Italian decree ultimately also placed disproportionate burden on Malta as the first European port of entry for migrants, but also placed the border countries on the precipice of international human rights law violations.

“We have taken a unanimous decision, our plan has three principles: our ports do not offer a safe port of entry for migrants; we will not allow migrants into Malta; we cannot guarantee their rescue,” Robert Abela said on Good Friday.

“The reality is that… it’s not that we are unable to assist to search-and-rescue obligations, but at this moment while all the country’s resources are dedicated to control the spread of COVID-19, you cannot stop that effort to sail hundreds of miles out of your country to save migrants. This is something that cannot happen. Physically we cannot do it.”

This is the most hawkish statement yet by Malta’s new prime minister on migration after Malta allowed the disembarkation of over 60 migrants on Thursday night, but wrote to the European Commission saying that the island does not have the necessary resources for mass rescues and said that its port would be closed for illegal migrants.

But his government has been criticised also for refusing to take a similar hardline stance on the COVID-19 lockdown, for example, by allowing construction activity to carry on unhindered by the closure of businesses, or to allow over 6,000 hunters to shoot quail during a two-week hunting season in April, the latter necessitating over 42 police offices monitoring the hunt by law.

Sea-Eye’s rescue vessel Alan Kurdi is currently out at sea, having been refused food and medicine after a 24-hour period of waiting for a response from the Italian coastguard. Migrant rescue charity Sea-Eye reported that Italy tried to relay the call for help to Malta, with Malta’s rescue coordination responding: “Do not try to push this onto Malta,” according to the NGO.

Sea-Eye said the Alan Kurdi is not suitable for the accommodation of the current 150 migrants it is holding, and told coastguards that in the next 48 hours, food was going to be required. However, Libya, Italy and Malta have declared their ports unsafe and made clear their intention not to allow further disembarkations. “It’s not acceptable that we see multi-million rescue packages for the European industry, but at the same time, it’s claimed that there are no resources for the protection of migrants,” Gordon Isler, Sea-Eye chairman said in a statement on Friday.

The maritime rescue vessel sailed to northwestern Sicily on Friday to seek shelter from the incoming heavy weather.