EU haggling over 234 migrants as rescue ship off Malta seeks shelter

A humanitarian rescue boat sought more sheltered seas off Malta on Wednesday as EU countries haggled over which would accept some of the 234 migrants saved from rubber dinghies off the Libyan coast six days ago.

The German group operating the ship, Lifeline Mission, said the weather conditions had worsened during a sixth day of waiting for safe haven, adding that some of the migrants were in fragile health. At least one had been evacuated two days earlier. Lifeline said it has received permission to enter Maltese territorial waters to seek protection from high winds — but not to make port.

The fate of the ship operated by the German group had appeared resolved a day earlier when Italy announced it would take some of the migrants and Malta would open its ports. But Malta later said the ship was not welcome until it had a deal for all of the migrants on board. Four countries, including Italy, had agreed to accept migrants while at least another two were considering it, Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, said.

Lifeline spokesperson Axel Steier claimed that a solution was being blocked by Germany’s interior minister, citing media reports. The Interior Ministry did not immediately comment.

Steier likened German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to Italy’s hardline interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who provoked the crisis by refusing ports to any humanitarian ships picking up migrants in the seas off Libya. Another ship run by French aid groups was forced to sail 1,500 kilometres to Spain with 630 migrants onboard after both Italy and Malta refused to take them.

‘Worsening weather’

He said Seehofer would be responsible “if the situation on the ship escalates in the next hours due to exhaustion and weakness of the people rescued and the overall worsening weather conditions.”

Manuel Sarrazin, a lawmaker with the German Green party who is in regular contact with the crew and its supporters, said the situation on board the Lifeline was deteriorating.

“Last night they were close to calling medical emergencies to evacuate two people,” Sarrazin told Associated Press. “Doctors on board were able to stabilize them so the evacuation, which would have been very dangerous, didn’t have to take place.”

Conditions aboard the ship are reportedly deteriorating. (Hermine Poschmann/Mission Lifeline via Associated Press)

Sarrazin said the passengers are suffering from severe sea sickness due to rough seas. “They are at risk of dehydration. It’s been clear for days that the situation could get worse. There needs to be a solution soon.”

He said 64 refugees still need to be distributed among European countries, with the others taken in by Portugal, France and Italy.

The standoff comes days before an EU summit where Italy will propose a new system for distributing migrants more evenly among EU countries along with ways to discourage economic migrants from leaving Africa. Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of the arrivals in recent years as people make the dangerous sea journey to seek a better life in Europe, often fleeing war and oppression.

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