Malta was demanding an EU humanitarian mission in Libya and the delivery of €100 million worth of food, medicines and medical equipment before the situation there worsened, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo said on Monday evening. 

In a message to the nation on social media as international pressure mounted on Malta following its decision to refuse to rescue any migrants at sea, Bartolo said the EU was faced with a situation where it needed to intervene before the situation worsened. 

With Italy and Malta having closed their ports because their resources are fully taken up on controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, Bartolo said the EU was expected to intervene to provide a solution to the hundreds of thousands who were looking for a better future in Libya. 

He said detention camps were full and the people there had no or little access to even the basic necessities. These, he said, were the ingredients for a humanitarian crisis. 

Malta could not be left alone to solve the situation there and cannot be left alone in welcoming migrants to its shores. 

“In last years, Malta saved thousands of people and went beyond its call of duty. Malta is proposing this to save lives, to fight human trafficking and to avoid a human tragedy. A country the size of a small European city cannot be left alone because people will die. If this situation persists, it will mean that people will remain in a desperate situation. The EU has to take action now before it worsens,” he said.

Bartolo said that if the EU targeted assistance in Libya, people there will have an incentive to remain there rather than risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean.

He said Malta will play its part by ensuring that aid will arrive at its intended destination but cannot be expected to bear the brunt on its own. 

He said human trafficking was big business in Libya and those NGOs which were promoting their services were acting as facilitators of this illegal activity. 

"Europe is facing an existential crisis. This is a time for action, to save people's lives. We are willing to do our part, but this situation requires a European response. If not, vulnerable people will die. If this aid is delayed, thousands of people will remain in desperate conditions, where their only option would be to travel by sea. The EU must act now, before there is a humanitarian catastrophe."

Malta and Italy both said last week that their ports were no longer safe and could not welcome any NGO rescue vessels or come to the aid of migrants in distress at sea. Both countries cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as reasons for the decision.

Libya has also declared its ports unsafe due to heavy shelling in its capital Tripoli, and said migrants who depart from there will not be allowed back in.

The European Commission has yet to make a statement about the ongoing crisis.

Malta’s government has accused NGOs which operate migrant sea rescues of “facilitating human trafficking”. NGOs have in turn accused the Maltese government of being willing to allow innocent people to die at sea.

Tensions between both sides flared this weekend after a German NGO, Sea-Watch, alleged that a migrant boat had capsized and its passengers presumed dead. Bartolo had replied by saying the vessel in question was an abandoned dinghy with nobody aboard.

EU border agency Frontex said on Monday that it appeared the vessel in question was a leftover from a previous migrant sea crossing and that there was no sign that people had been aboard it.

A separate boat carrying migrants was rescued by a Spanish NGO on Monday afternoon.

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