Ministers were summoned to a late-night meeting at Castille on Wednesday to discuss Malta's reaction after Italy closed its harbours - including Lampedusa - to NGO migrant rescue ships, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

A decree was signed in Rome by the ministers for foreign affairs, the interior, transport and health. It is valid for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.

The decree was issued as the ship Alan Kurdi, operated by the German NGO Sea Eye, seeks a safe harbour after rescuing 150 migrants off Libya on Monday and Tuesday. 

It is the first time that Italy has closed its ports for the disembarkation of migrants since far-right leader Matteo Salvini was ousted from the Italian government in September.

Sources said Wednesday night’s cabinet meeting was ongoing at 9pm. The Malta government is expected to issue a statement outlining Malta’s position and a number of possible scenarios once it is concluded. 

On Wednesday, Malta sent a diplomatic message to Germany, informing it that it would not allow migrants rescued at sea by NGO ships to disembark here.

In a conference call between EU foreign ministers last week, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo urged member states to take responsibility for sea rescue vessels flying their respective flags. 

This, however, does not mean that Malta is not considered a safe port, meaning the island still has a humanitarian obligation to accept requests for rescues from migrant boats within its waters. 

Italy and Malta have been at loggerheads in the past over the interpretation of international law on ports of safety where migrants may be taken.  

The Italian island of Lampedusa is often the closest port of safety for boats carrying Europe-bound asylum seekers and migrants. 

Security sources said that at least four boats packed with migrants had left the Libyan coast in recent hours.  

And, as periods of fine weather are expected for the next few weeks, more departures could be expected.  

The sources said that due to heavy clashes in and around the Libyan capital of Tripoli, many Libyan coast guard vessels are unmanned and not expected to engage in interceptions of migrant boats heading north. 


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