Malta Rescues 249 Migrants in 24 Hours, While NGO Boats Held Offshore

January 1, 2019 Updated: January 1, 2019

VALLETTA, Malta—Malta’s armed forces saved 180 migrants in two rescue operations in the Mediterranean on Dec. 31, less than 24 hours after picking up another group of 69.

A patrol boat picked up 28 migrants from a dinghy 71 miles southwest of Malta, and an additional 152 packed aboard a wooden vessel close by—the largest such rescue mission for many months, the army said.

That followed the Dec. 30 rescue by a Maltese patrol boat of 69 migrants from another wooden boat in distress southwest of the small Mediterranean island.

However, 49 more migrants remain blocked at sea days after they were picked up by two NGO rescue ships, with both Malta and Italy refusing to take them in, part of a concerted European effort to halt migration flows from Africa. The Sea-Watch 3 rescued 32 people on Dec. 22, while the Sea-Eye’s Professor Albrecht Penck rescued 17 people on Dec. 29. Both boats are operated by German NGOs.

Jan Ribbeck, head of mission aboard the Professor Albrecht Penckel, said maritime law stated that rescued people had to be moved to land as soon as possible.

“It is utterly unscrupulous that no single European state is taking this responsibility,” he said in a statement, urging nearby Malta to take in the migrants for eventual redistribution among several EU countries, as has happened in the past.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees also called for the migrants to be allowed into a safe port before the arrival of forecasted bad weather.

“States need to implement a regional arrangement that provides shipmasters with clarity and predictability on where to disembark refugees and migrants rescued in the Mediterranean,” the U.N. refugee agency said in a statement.

Italy has led the way into clamping down on migrants seeking to come to Europe; it has stopped NGO rescue boats from docking in Italian ports and offered more help to Libya to prevent people from leaving.

According to the Italian government, some 12,977 migrants entered Italy in 2018 via boats from Libya, down about 88 percent from 2017 levels and about 93 percent from 2016.