Update 3 | Muscat tells Italian prime minister Malta will not take in Aquarius

Italian minister for the interior Matteo Salvini ups ante on Malta, insisting it take in 600 migrants rescued by the humanitarian ship Aquarius • Maltese PM Joseph Muscat says Malta acting in full conformity with international obligations

The migrants being rescued (Source: Corriere della Sera)
The migrants being rescued (Source: Corriere della Sera)

Updated at 11.27pm with statement by Joseph Muscat

The Prime Minister of Malta has told his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte that Malta was acting in full conformity with its international obligations and would not take the humanitarian ship Aquarius nad its over 600 rescued migrants into Maltese ports.

Joseph Muscat said that in conformity with its policy throughout the past years, Malta will carry out emergency medical evacuations of persons requiring urgent medical care for humanitarian reasons.

"The Maltese government is concerned at the Italian authorities’ directions being given to Aquarius on the high seas which go against international rules, and risk creating a dangerous situation for all those involved," Muscat said in a statement after the telephone call with Conte.

The ship Aquarius, currently 43 miles off Malta's coast, carrying 629 migrants
The ship Aquarius, currently 43 miles off Malta's coast, carrying 629 migrants

Meanwhile, the Italian authorities have asked the Aquarius to stay put in international waters, something which sources in the maritime sector say is illegal. "Italys has no jurisdiction in international waters to order a ship to stay put. It is manifestly illegal and probably intended to cause a distressful situation on board, forcing the crew to ask for assistance, at which point Malta will have to coordinate the rescue and take in the migrants as the closest, safest port," the sources said.

Italy has asked the Maltese government to declare Malta as the safest port of call for the humanitarian ship Aquarius - currently carrying 629 migrants, navigating 43 nautical miles off Malta’s coast - and to allow them to disembark onto the island.

Italy’s Home Affairs Minister Matteo Salvini, from the far-right Lega, has said that Italy will not authorise Aquarius’ entry into any Italian port, insisting it is up to Malta’s government to give the ship the green light for docking, the Corriere della Sera reported, in a move which the newspaper said was “officially opening the dispute with Malta.”

The Maltese government is insisting, it is is neither the competent authority, nor the coordinating rescue centre for the operation.

The newspaper said Salvini’s decision meant the minister was immediately putting into practice Italy’s new migration policy, where he promised he would prevent NGOs from “carrying out the role of sea taxis”.

The migrants on board the ship had left from Libya, and were rescued from smaller boats and taken on board to the Aquarius in various operations overnight. Amongst them are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and seven pregnant women.

Reactions

In an initial reaction, a Maltese government spokesperson told MaltaToday: "The rescue happened in the Libyan search and rescue area and it was coordinated by the rescue coordination centre in Rome. Malta is neither the coordinating authority and has no competence on this case."

Opposition leader Adrian Delia said the national interest came first and foremost for Malta. "Malta should hold strong and firm to safeguard its national interest," Delia said.

In Italy, the mayor of Naples Luigi de Magistris condemned Salvini's actions and declared that the port of Naples was ready to accept the ship. Similar statements were made by the mayors of Palermo, Messina and Reggio Calabria.

Where is the Aquarius now?

As of Sunday evening the Aquarius was located outside Maltese territorial waters awaiting instructions on where to disembark the migrants. The map below created by MaltaToday, illustrates the rough location where the Aquarius rescued the migrants (red circle) and Malta's search and rescue area (marked in blue). The map shows that the rescue operation took place deep in the search and rescue area under Libyan authority.

Map showing Malta's SAR region (blue box), the migrant's rescue location (red circle), Lampedusa (yellow circle) and Malta (black circle) relative to the Aquarius' path and location at 4.51pm on Sunday
Map showing Malta's SAR region (blue box), the migrant's rescue location (red circle), Lampedusa (yellow circle) and Malta (black circle) relative to the Aquarius' path and location at 4.51pm on Sunday

Furthermore, the map shows that Lampedusa (yellow circle) was the closest, safest port of call, if Libya is excluded. Malta (black circle) was much further away from the point of rescue. The arrow indicates the voyage the Aquarius took, as tracked by Vessel Finder, an online shipping tracker.

The location on the map of the Aquarius (red box) is correct as at 4.51pm on Sunday.

International law dictates that a country is obliged to coordinate rescue operations in its search and rescue area (SAR) but not necessarily take in the rescued people. International law dictates that rescued people have to be taken to the closest, safest port of call.

Italy has in the past, as it is doing now, contended that Malta's responsibility was to take in migrants rescued in its area of competence. The Italian media often use the words, 'acque Maltese' (Maltese waters) to describe Malta's vast SAR region. However, this is a mistaken notion because Maltese territorial waters extend to 12 nautical miles. Although Malta commands a large SAR region in the central Mediterranean, the government has always contended its responsibility is to coordinate rescue operations.

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