Around 60 people who were rescued from two migrant boats were brought to Malta on Monday in the first significant arrival of boat people in months.

The migrants were picked up by two merchant vessels in Malta's search and rescue zone between the island and Libya. The rescue was carried out on instructions of the Maltese authorities.

The migrants were later transferred to AFM patrol boats, which brought them to Marsaxlokk. On arrival, they were ushered into vans belonging to the Detention Service. Representatives from the UNHCR were present.    

Some of the migrants on the deck of the AFM rescue launch which brought them to Malta. (Jonathan Borg)Some of the migrants on the deck of the AFM rescue launch which brought them to Malta. (Jonathan Borg)

Foil survival blankets used to keep the body warm were given to the group, which consisted mostly of young to middle-aged men. Some were walking barefoot. Their nationality is not yet known.

On Sunday night, NGO Alarm Phone accused the Maltese authorities of refusing to rescue the group despite bad weather, describing the decision as a “cruel prevention of rescue.”  

On Monday, however, the NGO said that the group had been rescued by merchant vessels on orders from Maltese authorities.  

“Good news. We have learned that the two boats in distress were rescued by merchant vessels that Malta eventually ordered to intervene. The rescued people will reach Malta this afternoon. We hope everyone is well onboard and thank captains and crews,” the NGO said on Twitter. 

The decision to rescue the group came amidst ongoing pressure from NGOs and growing tensions between Italy and Malta about the Mediterranean migration crisis. 

Last week, a senior Italian politician expressed his frustration at Malta’s lack of action, saying the country “never intervened” in calls for rescue.  

"Malta's attitude is starting to grate," said Tommaso Foti, who heads the ruling right-wing Fratelli d'Italia grouping in Italy's parliament. "They consistently pretend not to see and never intervene. Our coastguard is under pressure," he said. 

A migrant is helped to step ashore. (Jonathan Borg)A migrant is helped to step ashore. (Jonathan Borg)

Maltese authorities deny the existence of any plan to systematically ignore rescue calls.  

On March 23, Times of Malta reported that Italy had rescued over 20,000 migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean since the start of the year. 

At the time, Malta had rescued only one, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).   

Since then, Italy has rescued an additional 10,000 people.  

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) notes that with 441 lives lost since the start of this year, the period spanning January to March 2023 represents the deadliest quarter to date for those crossing the central Mediterranean since 2017. 

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