A top European Union official accused Malta on Sunday of failing
to meet its international responsibilities to save lives at sea after
leaving African migrants clinging to tuna nets in the Mediterranean Sea
Commissioner Franco Frattini, in charge of migration issues, said he
wanted a formal undertaking from the island at a meeting of EU interior
ministers on June 11 that it would not allow such an incident to take
place again. "The obligation to save lives at sea comes from international tradition that no country has ever violated in such a manifest way," Frattini told La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper.
Last week, 27 shipwrecked Africans spent three days clinging to tuna
nets in the Mediterranean while Malta and Libya argued over who should
rescue them. They were eventually picked up by the Italian Navy.
A French Navy ship found 18 bodies floating south of Malta on Friday
just days after the Maltese authorities said they had lost contact with
a boat that was photographed carrying 53 African migrants.
The frigate, La Motte-Piquet, was due Sunday to dock in the French port
of Toulon and be met by the French immigration minister, Brice Hortefeux.
Malta refused to allow a Spanish tugboat to land another 26 would-be
migrants on the grounds that they were picked up in seas that fall under
Libya’s responsibility. Spain decided to take them in.
Malta argues it is not obliged under international law to take in
migrants if they are in Libya’s search and rescue area, but Frattini
accused the country, one of the EU’s newest and smallest members, of
ignoring its responsibilities.
"You can’t hide behind a type of legal-bureaucratic argument while
letting people die," Frattini said.
Frattini said the EU was providing help, including a marine patrol force
around Malta, Sicily and Libya to be launched later this month, and
Malta had to do its part in return.
The Council of Europe, a pan-European body that works to promote human rights, also criticized the Valletta government.
The council’s human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, said his
office would "urge the Maltese authorities to soften their stance on
providing assistance to irregular migrants whose lives are in danger."
A Maltese patrol boat recovered 29 migrants Saturday from a boat
drifting 135 kilometers, or 84 miles, off the island’s coast.
On Friday, the Maltese home affairs minister, Tonio Borg, told The
Times, a Maltese newspaper, that the island was doing all it could.
"We are adhering to all our obligations but no one can expect us to also assume responsibility for a search-and-rescue area that is not ours," he said.
Asked whether he was referring to Libya, Borg said, "The only thing that
is coming from Libya is perfect silence."