49 migrants still stranded on NGO rescue boats as Maltese army saves 249 migrants

As rough seas beckon, the UNHCR and Maltese bishops appeal for European solidarity to provide a port of safety for 49 migrants, including young children, aboard two NGO rescue vessels

The German NGO Sea Eye rescued 17 people on 29 December (Photo: Sea Eye)
The German NGO Sea Eye rescued 17 people on 29 December (Photo: Sea Eye)

The UNHCR and the Maltese bishops have appealed for European solidarity to provide a port of safety for migrants stranded on board two NGO rescue vessels

Concerns are mounting over the wellbeing of 49 migrants aboard the Sea Watch 3 and the Sea Eye, two NGO rescue vessels. The migrants, including young children, have so far been denied disembarkation in Malta and Italy.

The situation comes as the Armed Forces of Malta was kept busy over the past 48 hours, having been involved in three separate rescue operations to save 249 migrants in Malta’s area of competence in the Mediterranean.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Galea-Curmi, praised the army’s work in a joint statement.

But they also called for European solidarity to give the remaining migrants who are still at sea, a port of safety to disembark.

READ ALSO: Armed Forces of Malta rescue 180 migrants at sea and AFM in migrant rescue operation

The UNHCR also appealed to States to “urgently” offer safe ports and disembarkation to the two NGO vessels.

32 people have been on board the Sea Watch 3 since 22 December, while another 17 people were rescued by Sea Eye on 29 December.

“Time is increasingly of the essence,” the UNHCR warned as rough seas were expected in the coming hours. Conditions on the boats are likely to deteriorate, the refugee agency added.

“Decisive leadership is required, in line with fundamental values of humanity and compassion, to offer safe disembarkation and bring the 49 safely to land,” Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, said. “Negotiations on which States will subsequently receive them must come only after they are safely ashore.”

End the boat-by-boat approach - UNHCR

The UNHCR also called for an end to the boat-by-boat approach adopted by European countries since Italy’s closure of its ports last year to private migrant rescue vessels.

Malta has followed suit, denying port entry to several NGO vessels unless it had a multilateral agreement to distribute the rescued migrants.

According to the UNHCR more than 2,240 people have either died or gone missing at sea attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean in 2018.

“In 2019, there is a critical need to end the current boat-by-boat approach, and for States to implement a regional arrangement that provides shipmasters with clarity and predictability on where to disembark refugees and migrants rescued on the Mediterranean,” the UNHCR said.