What is Malta up to in the stand-off with NGO ships?

Malta took in MV Lifeline's passengers before distributing them to other countries, but closed its ports to NGO ships

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Malta
What is Malta up to in the stand-off with NGO ships? - NewsMavens
Distressed persons are transferred from the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Antonio (LPD 17) to Armed Forces of Malta offshore patrol vessel P52, Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

Even after Spain stepped in to resolve the first migration stand-off between Italy and Malta, it was clear that this was only the beginning. Governments and right-wing commentators are increasingly turning their attention to NGOs who patrol the Mediterranean looking for dinghies in distress. Even the New York Times ran an analysis last year about how the probability of NGO ships saving migrants has enabled human smugglers to send increasingly precarious vessels onto the sea. Governments claim that the only solution is to empower the Libyan coastguard to intercept these vessels. However, this "solution" is decades old.

Libyan authorities, before the country plummeted into civil war, were reportedly abusing migrants and banishing them to the desert. Few remember now, how in 2004, Silvio Berlusconi and Mu'ammar Gaddhafi in Libya made a pact to stop migration to Italy, with Libya allegedly agreeing to deport sub-Saharan migrants to their origin countries and to seal off its southern frontiers, while the EU was signing treaties with countries in North Africa, and the Caucasus to regulate readmission of irregular migrants in what was called circular migration. This backgrounder from 2006 maps how countries, including Spain, previously responded to African migrants' attempts to cross over.

The struggle is not new -- like high and low tide, the ease of crossing over in different parts of the Mediterranean is shifting, and migrants look for means to adapt accordingly. However, the demonization of migrants and NGOs becomes embedded in current debates. In Italy, some articles are blaming philanthropist George Soros, the far-right are blaming NGOs for siding with smugglers, and everyone is blaming the EU for either not doing enough or doing too much to allow African migrants to safely disembark in the EU. James Debono's explainer in Malta Today is a valuable summary of what's at stake in Malta, which, due to its large SAR area and proximity to Libya, is likely to be in the headlines again.

Details from the story:

  • Malta allowed 234 passengers on board the MV Lifeline to disembark -- against the protests of some locals, who even brought their children to shout abuse at the migrants. Italy has refused to allow the ship into its ports after the ship's captain ignored orders to cooperate with the Libyan coastguard.
  • Promptly afterwards, the ship's captain was arraigned over inadequate registration of the vessel and is standing trial.
  • The migrants are being transferred to nine European countries who agreed to the resettlement. However, countries failed to agree on a systematic and binding sharing programme for asylum seekers.
  • Following that, the Maltese government barred NGO-run ships to leave Malta and disembark in its ports "until things are clarified".
  • Italy and Malta had an arrangement from 2013 when then-Prime Minister Enrico Letta -- in the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy which saw 350 migrants drown -- embarked on operation Mare Nostrum. Italy assumed leadership over search and rescue operations across the vast Maltese SAR area.
  • The arrangement between the two countries was renewed by Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni. No robust alternative to Mare Nostrum ever emerged.
  • The center-left Labour government in Malta, under whose rule Malta stopped imprisoning asylum seekers and adopted its first integration strategy, also looked for ways to legitimise pushbacks at sea and has been pressured by an increasingly xenophobic opposition.
  • Surveys show that Maltese are more concerned with the relatively small number of asylum seekers than with the far larger numbers of foreign workers.
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