So much has been written in the past days on the humanitarian and moral obligations the Maltese government had in dealing with the latest migrants’ saga.
There was great pressure from all quarters on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to bring ashore 49 migrants who were stranded at sea after they were rescued close to Libya, far away from Malta’s zone of responsibility.
As the days passed – and, in total, they eventually amounted to 19 – the situation on board two NGO vessels continued to deteriorate, with some of the migrants refusing food and others showing signs of desperation, so much so that one of them even jumped overboard, thinking he could swim to shore. He was pulled back on the boat, when he realised he could not make it to land safely.
In the end, the migrants were transferred onto an Armed Forces of Malta vessel and brought to land. But this happened only after it was ensured that a burden-sharing exercise was in place, both for these 49 as well as another 249 migrants who had been rescued by Malta between Christmas and the New Year.
From a strictly compassionate point of view, it can be argued that the Maltese government’s position left much to be desired. But there is no doubt that, from a legal standpoint, Joseph Muscat acted in the best of ways and in the best interests of the country.
The arguments made by the PM with regard to Malta’s legal duties were always impeccable – Malta, he said, did not bat an eyelid when 249 migrants were in difficulty on two occasions just before New Year’s Eve, and sent out AFM vessels to the rescue; Malta, he said, cannot be expected to take in all migrants that are rescued anywhere in the Mediterranean, outside Malta’s zone of responsibility; Malta, he said, has ordered the NGO vessels to leave Maltese territorial waters after the transferring of the migrants onto the AFM boat was completed.
In so arguing, Malta achieved its aims.
It forced other European nations to accept to share the responsibility of taking migrants, with Malta to keep only 74 of the 298 that were rescued in the past days, while the rest will be redistributed among another eight nations.
Yet, even in this respect, Muscat did not shy away from accusing the European Union of not doing its bit. When he addressed the media to announce that the 49 migrants were to be brought to land, Muscat spoke about a deal involving eight other nations, and specifically said that it had not been an EU operation. In so doing, Muscat was telling the EU to wake up and deal with the issue on a long-term basis, and not rely on ad hoc agreements that need to be sorted out each time something like this happens.
Muscat has also stood firm on Malta’s position that it is impossible for the smallest country of the EU to be asked to accommodate all migrants that are rescued anywhere in the Mediterranean. If Malta had given in immediately to the requests made by the two vessels, it would have been like telling all NGOs on rescue missions to sail towards Maltese shores each time migrants are taken on board.
Added to this, by ordering the NGO ships not to dock in Malta but to leave Maltese waters as soon as the transferring of migrants was completed, Malta maintained its stand that its ports are not open to such vessels. NGOs can argue that they are saving lives, but they must also understand that laws are there to be followed.
From a legal point of view, Malta acted to perfection. But then, of course, there was the humanitarian aspect. And that’s a completely different ball-game.
Original article found on The Malta Independent