Update 2 | Malta and Italy in war of words as migrant vessel 'loiters' in international waters

The Italian government has demanded that Malta take in the vessel and arrest its crew • Maltese government says there are 'serious legal and operational concerns' with the vessel's operations

Rescued migrants being transferred from a container ship to the MV Lifeline yesterday (Photo: Mission Lifeline/Hermine Poschmamm)
Rescued migrants being transferred from a container ship to the MV Lifeline yesterday (Photo: Mission Lifeline/Hermine Poschmamm)
The Lifeline is currently carrying 239
The Lifeline is currently carrying 239

Updated at 9.53pm with government statement

Tensions between Malta and Italy over migration continued to rise on Friday evening as Italy’s Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli accused Malta of inhumanity towards migrants rescued by the NGO-operated vessel, MV Lifeline.

In a tweet on Friday evening Toninelli said Europe was reflecting Malta’s inhumanity.

“The ship in the island’s SAR is in difficulty because of its irresponsibility, with 230 migrants on board,” tweeted the Italian minister. “No Other country coordinates rescues and therefore Valletta is even more responsible.”

Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia rebutted the Italian minister's claims
Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia rebutted the Italian minister's claims

Toninelli’s comments were immediately rebutted by Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia who told Toninello to get his facts straight.

Farrugia said the rescue had taken place within the Libyan Search and Rescue region between Lampedusa and Libya, adding that the operation was coordinated by Italian authorities with Malta not having been involved.

Farrugia said the Lifeline bore considerable responsibility after it broke international rules by not following instructions given by the rescue coordination centre in Rome. "Now loitering in international waters risking delicate situation. Vessel claims Dutch flag but Netherlands says it is simply pleasure boat registration," Farrugia said.

Earlier

The Maltese government has said that the MV Lifeline, which is currently carrying 239 migrants, had breached its obligations to abide by instructions given to it by competent search and rescue authorities.

The ship’s passengers were rescued by the NGO in Libya's search and rescue area after they were spotted in two overcrowded rubber boats. Despite being told to wait for the assistance of Libya's coastguard, the NGO decided to rescue them because had they not they would have been returned to Libya, which is not considered to be safe.

Italy’s Home Affairs minister Matteo Salvini has refused to allow the vessel into Italy and is insisting that Malta should open its ports to the Lifeline instead.

“The outlaw ship Lifeline is now in Maltese waters, with its cargo of 239 immigrants,” wrote Salvini. “For the safety of the crew and passengers on board, we have asked Malta to open its ports. It is clear that the ship must then be seized, and its crew stopped. No more trafficking at sea.

A spokesperson for the Maltese government however has reiterated that as had happened in every previous case, Malta was abiding by its legal obligations according to all applicable conventions.

“With regards to the MV LIFELINE, according to MRCC Rome, the search and rescue (SAR) cases were carried out within the Libyan Search and Rescue Region and were initially handled by MRCC Rome, with the Libyan Authority assuming responsibility of the SAR cases,” the spokesperson said, adding that Malta was neither the coordinating nor the competent authority in this case.

Furthermore, the spokesperson said that it had transpired that the MV Lifeline breached its obligations to abide by instructions given to it by the competent SAR authorities, in this case the whichever of the Libyan or Italian coastguards was coordinating the case.

“According to the Dutch authorities, MV Lifeline is using an International Certificate for Pleasure Craft and although it has a Dutch document, it is not sailing under the country’s flag. This is a very serious legal and operational concern,” the spokesperson said. They said that a number of member states, including Malta, were in contact regarding the case.

The spokesperson also confirmed that no request for assistance had yet been made by the Rome Coorindation Centre or the ship, and pointed out that the rescue had taken place in areas between Libya and Lampedusa.

Meanwhile, a Spanish government spokeswoman said on Friday that Spain had been in contact with Malta to offer humanitarian help with the ship.

“We have been in contact with Malta to offer support if humanitarian help is needed by the boat in the next few hours,” government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said during a news conference following the weekly cabinet meeting.

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MaltaToday could not independently verify the ship's current position, with vessel tracking websites only providing the ship's location as of the 14 June. This newspaper is informed that the vessel switched off its automatic identification system, a tracking system, on 13 June.

On Thursday, the vessel, which is operated by the Dresden-based NGO, was told by Salvini to make its way to the Netherlands since he said it was registered in the country. This was however refuted by Netherlands representation at the EU.

"The Seefuchs and Lifeline are not sailing under Dutch flag as per UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) flag state responsibility," it said on Twitter.

“These ships are owned by German NGOs and are not on the NL ships register. So NL is not able to give instructions to these ships. Italy is aware of the Dutch position.”

In a subsequent tweet, the Dutch representation at the EU said that the Netherlands shared Italy’s concerns about the sustained irregular flow of migrants who cross the Mediterranean Sea and their effect on Italy as the first country of arrival.

Later in the day however, the NGO uploaded photos of documentation appearing to show that the vessel is indeed registered in the Netherlands, saying it was not on the official Dutch register because it was a smaller vessel.

Italy’s new government has taken a hard line in its position on migration, having found itself in a diplomatic dispute with Malta earlier this month after it closed its port to another NGO-operated rescue vessel that was carrying migrants saved in Libyan search and rescue waters, insisting instead that they disembarked in Malta.

Malta stood its ground however and did not allow the vessel into its ports, arguing that it had always stuck to its international obligations, and that it had no competence on the case in question.

The latest dispute comes ahead of an informal meeting of European leaders convened by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that is to take place on Sunday. Migration will also be on the agenda at the next EU Council summit due to take place at the end of the month.

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