By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) – Malta rebuffed Italian pressure to go to the aid of an overcrowded boat carrying hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean, saying that the vessel was Italy’s responsibility.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini earlier urged Malta to rescue some 450 migrants on board a large boat that at the time was in Malta’s search-and-rescue area, saying “this boat cannot and must not arrive” in Italy.
Since taking office last month, Salvini has led a high-profile campaign to shut humanitarian rescue ships out of Italy’s ports, which means there are currently no charity ships to help out with rescues.
“When contacted, the persons on board the vessel informed Malta that their intention was to proceed to Lampedusa,” the Maltese government said in a statement, referring to an Italian island half way between Sicily and Libya, from which people smugglers send unsafe boats to sea toward Italy.
“Malta monitored the vessel in order to ensure immediate assistance should it have been required. The vessel is now in Italian territorial waters,” the statement said. “Malta has satisfied all obligation under the applicable international conventions on coordination of Search and Rescue events.”
There have been two similar stand-offs with Malta since Italy’s new populist government, which pairs the far-right League party with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, took power on June 1. In one case, rescued migrants were taken to Spain, and in another to Malta.
Earlier on Friday Salvini, who is also leader of the far-right League party, said Italy would not take in the migrants because they were Malta’s responsibility. Malta, a small island nation, has generally refused to take in large numbers of boat migrants.
Italy has seen more than 650,000 arrivals on its shores since 2014.
MIGRANT BOAT CLOSE TO ITALIAN ISLANDS
“Since this morning a large boat with 450 illegal immigrants on board has been in waters patrolled by Malta, which has taken responsibility for it,” Salvini wrote on Facebook.
The boats also often carry refugees, as did one with some 30 Syrians who were picked up by the Italian coast guard earlier on Friday. They were taken to Lampedusa.
Minutes after Salvini’s statement, Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who is a member of the League’s anti-establishment coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement, also urged Malta to act.
“According to the maritime law, it’s Malta that must send its own ships and open its own ports,” he said on Twitter. “Our coast guard can act, if needed, in support, but Malta should immediately do its duty.”
The large boats are particularly dangerous because they have often capsized in the past, trapping hundreds of people below deck as they sink.
According to a map of the migrant boat’s position provided by Malta, it is currently between Lampedusa and Linosa, both Italian islands and more than 100 nautical miles from Malta.
The League and 5-Star have pledged to crackdown on migration even though arrivals from Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity, are down more than 85 percent this year.
Though arrivals have plummeted, people are still dying at sea. In the past four weeks, since charity boats have been locked out of Italian ports, more than 600 people, including children, have drowned or gone missing at sea, the International Organization for Migration estimates.
(Additional reporting by Chris Scicluna in VALLETTA; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Catherine Evans, William Maclean)