Malta is not in a position to guarantee the rescue of migrants and will not allow any further disembarkation of rescued persons, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government said on Thursday.

The announcement came as the Armed Forces rescued a group of migrants found in Malta's search and rescue zone. They are due to reach Malta at around 12.30am on Friday morning will be kept in detention.

In a statement, the government said no further disembarkation of migrants would be allowed in Malta, independently of whether the migrants were rescued by NGO vessels or other craft. 

It said the announcement was being made so that migrants planning to head towards Malta would be aware of the risks they faced.

"It is in the interest and responsibility of such people not to endanger themselves on a risky voyage to a country which is not in a position to offer them a secure harbour," the government said.

It said the decision was being taken in view of the risk of the spreading of COVID-19 and the fact that the forces of law and order were otherwise engaged on duties related to containment of the virus.

It pointed out that over the years Malta had been under immense pressure and had rescued thousands of migrants, with little tangible help.

The announcement came 24 hours after Italy closed all its ports, saying its harbours could not be considered safe in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statement sent to the European Commission

In a statement that will be sent to the European Commission, the government said that:

"Considering the situation of a public health emergency resultant from the spread of the coronavirus and the current extraordinary burden being faced by the national health services, as well as due to the extraordinary commitments being made by the public sector, for the care and assistance to COVID-19 patients, it is presently not possible to ensure the availability of a 'safe place' on the Maltese territory, without compromising the efficiency/functionality of the national health, logistic and safety structures, which are dedicated to limiting the spread of the contagious disease, as well as to provide assistance and care to COVID-19 patients."

It is presently not possible to ensure the availability of a 'safe place' on the Maltese territory

"Considering that any persons rescued at sea, who may also be suffering from the COVID-19 contagious disease, must be protected from any threats to their life, and also must have their primary needs fulfilled including access to fundamental services in terms of health, logistics and transport;

"Considering also that the Maltese authorities have already ordered the closure of the airport and ports for passenger traffic;

"Considering the necessity to provide the proper balance between the control over the Maltese territory and the compliance with Malta’s international obligations whilst addressing this public health emergency including the enforcement of effective measures already put in place for the containment of the spread of contagious disease adopted so far, whilst taking into account the involvement of the law enforcement officers primarily the Armed Forces of Malta, the Police Force and the Civil Protection Department whose resources are all focused on combating the spread of this contagious disease;

"Considering that, following the declaration of a public health emergency issued
by the Superintendent of Public Health in terms of the Public Health Act and in
order to counter the spread of the contagious disease, it is necessary to ensure the taking of the appropriate and proportionate measures to prevent additional risks of contagion.

It is considered that the Maltese authorities are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of prohibited immigrants

"Therefore, in the light of the magnitude of these pressures, it is considered
that the Maltese authorities are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of
prohibited immigrants on board of any boats, ships or other vessels, nor to ensure the availability of a “safe place” on the Maltese territory to any persons rescued at sea."

Reported clash at sea

Meanwhile, Alarm Phone, a group which regularly announces the presence of migrant boats in the Mediterranean, asked in a tweet whether migrants had been attacked at sea by Maltese personnel. 

An AFM spokeswoman when contacted said she had no comments to make. 

However, sources said later that the group rescued and being brought to Malta on Thursday was the same one mentioned by Alarm Phone.  

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