[WATCH] Minister denies suggestions Malta unable to deal with large boat migrant arrivals

Clear rules of engagement for NGOs and governments will be needed to ensure the lives of migrants at sea are rescued

Shadow minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici (left) and foreign minister Carmelo Abela
Shadow minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici (left) and foreign minister Carmelo Abela

Human rights advocate Neil Falzon has questioned whether Malta was prepared to cater for an influx of asylum seekers over the coming summer months.

The director of human rights organisation Aditus said that although Malta had processed a larger number of asylum claims over the last years, he expressed concern that Malta was still not equipped to deal with large boat arrivals.

“The situation we had many years ago will happen again this summer… especially with the lack of understanding between Italy and Malta,” Falzon said, and said it was unacceptable that the countries quibbled over international law while over 600 people were left stranded at sea, waiting for an agreement to be reached between the two countries.

Foreign minister Carmelo Abela, speaking on TVM’s Xtra, denied that Malta was unable to deal with large boat arrivals, saying that all of the country’s military assets would be utilised to save people’s lives.

“It is not correct to say migration is not on the country’s agenda… requests for asylum have increased and not decreased. We always followed our obligations and we expect other countries to obey them,” Abela said, explaining Malta’s refusal to take in the Aquarius.

Read more: Revision of Dublin rules on migration not plausible at next EU summit, Joseph Muscat says

Despite no arrivals from boat migrants in 2017, Malta offered some kind of protection to 815 asylum seekers. Of these, 315 asylum seekers were Libyan nationals.

Abela reiterated his denial of any ‘secret agreement’ with Italy on the country’s previous commitment to take in all migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean, a reference to unconfirmed reports that Malta had granted Italy oil exploration rights in exchange for taking in migrants it rescued.

Abela said Malta had offered to take in medical evacuations from the Aquarius, the rescue ship at the centre of a Malta-Italy stand-off earlier this week. “This was confirmed by the Italian media, as those aboard the Aquarius said that they never made contact with Malta, and that the condition of the people on board was good.”

Shadow minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici said he believes Malta ought to engage with Italy in discussion. “There is a huge dose of politics in what [Matteo] Salvini is doing… but through discussion, it is easier to do good.”

Abela expressed confidence in Malta’s stance, saying it had received support from European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker and French President Emmanuel Macron. “Although Italy thinks it has been right internally, the perception is different globally,” Abela said of Salvini’s decision to close Italian ports to the Aquarius.

Fabrizio Ellul, spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency UNCHR, said governments needed a ‘predictability mechanism’ that helps them coordinate rescue missions with private rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean, such as SOS Mediteranée which operate the Aquarius.

To this, Mifsud Bonnici said that there was a need for clear rules of engagement and that NGOs in the Mediterranean should have the freedom to carry out their mission.

Abela said rules of engagement were necessary in order for all actors to work together, citing instances in which conflicts arose even with the Libyan coast guard in the past.