ROME (Reuters) – Italy said on Friday Malta had refused to take in a Dutch-flagged ship carrying more than 200 rescued migrants and said the decision was “inhumane”, 10 days after shutting its own ports to a migrant vessel.
The new stand-off between the neighboring Mediterranean countries arose as Italy’s new government has been pressuring European partners to shoulder more of the burden of immigration from North Africa.
Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli criticized tiny Malta on his Facebook page, where he also posted a photo of an email full of nautical information and signed by the Armed Forces of Malta inferring that it was not responsible for the latest ship as it was not in a “SAR (Search and Rescue) Situation”.
Anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has said the ship, the “Lifeline,” should take the migrants to the Netherlands since it is flying a Dutch flag.
Malta’s government spokesman said in a separate statement that the country was not the competent authority because initial “Search and Rescue” was done by Libya and that the ship had breached its obligations to oblige by Libyan instructions.
While Toninelli said the ship was in Maltese search and rescue waters and in difficulty, the Maltese email said the ship “has not manifested any distress”.
“Europe must intervene to remedy this inhumanity of Malta,” Toninelli said.
Maltese Interior Minister Michael Farrugia shot back with a statement saying “Toninelli should stick to the facts.”
Toninelli’s criticism of Malta as being inhumane was similar to accusations made by France, which earlier this month accused Rome of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for not letting the charity ship Aquarius dock in Italy.
That left the Gibraltar-flagged ship stranded at sea for days with more than 600 migrants on board – until Spain offered them safe haven. Malta had also refused to take in the Aquarius.
The tiny island nation has not taken in large numbers of people rescued at sea, while Italy has seen 650,000 arrivals since 2014.
The 234 migrants on board the Lifeline include 14 women and four small children.
While the number of sea arrivals to Italy has dropped dramatically this year – by more than 77 percent from 2017 – the new populist government has thrust immigration to the top of the EU’s agenda ahead of a summit of leaders next week.
Italy’s government, sworn in earlier this month after promising to raise its voice on immigration in Brussels, has sparred with France, Malta and Germany ahead of the meeting.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel played down expectations of a breakthrough at a hastily-arranged talks among EU leaders on Sunday on the migration dispute dividing Europe and threatening her own government.
Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and Gavin Jones in Rome and Chris Scicluna in Valletta; Editing by Mark Heinrich