It might seem to many to be an innocuous incident, of a boat with a few migrants stranded outside our shores being denied access to our ports by the Maltese government. No big deal! It has happened before and it has happened on countless other occasions. Nothing special.

Or is it?

For the past four years, since this government came to power, Malta has been spared the constant flow of migrants entering our shores simply because the Italians have taken the lot with no questions asked. Frankly, Italy has constantly taken the brunt.

So this incident might seem to many like the odd case of a lonely boat having lost its way to Italy and instead ended up in Malta. It may already have fallen under the radar, but for those who follow migration closely it is a first sign of a crisis waiting to happen.

Only a few weeks ago, a Sicilian prosecutor said he had hard evidence of NGOs aiding and abetting human smugglers. During the past few years, NGOs like MOAS were allowed to conduct search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, even quite close to Libyan shores. There are plenty, and most of them, like MOAS, do sterling work.

However, the Sicilian prosecutor accused some of them (not MOAS) of having become simply a taxi service for migrants wanting to make the trip from Libyan waters to Italy.

Needless to say, this story hit the headlines almost instantly in Italy and it has been tough-going for Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni ever since. As expected, the pressure was ratcheted up mostly by right leaning parties and populists like Beppe Grillo of the Five-Star movement. Lately, even the centre-right Forza Italia has weighed in.

What happens if the Italian government refuses to give access to other NGO boats in the coming days and weeks?

The Socialist minster of the Interior Marco Minitti, who is the former Italian spy chief, moved swiftly to rein in the NGOs, generally by piling pressure on them to sign a code of conduct. Some did, others did not.

Meanwhile, the Italian authorities seized a German NGO’s rescue vessel alleging that its crew had taken on migrants directly from smugglers’ boats near Libya’s coast. Reportedly, the preventive seizure was based on evidence that emerged from three episodes in which crew members had contact with human smugglers operating boats crowded with migrants. One of these episodes happened in September 2016 and two in June. “There were contacts, meetings, understandings between the group’s boat and the smugglers,” the prosecutor said.

Now, the Italian government seems to have taken the decision not to allow access to its port to NGOs which continue to refuse to sign the code of conduct. This brings us to the lonely boat stranded just outside Malta waiting for the Maltese authorities to give it access to our port.

The Maltese refused to give it access and the Italians caved in eventually when they realised that the boat was owned by an NGO that had actually signed the Code of Conduct. It seems that at first the Italians thought this boat was owned by The Boat Refugee Foundation, an NGO that has consistently refused to sign the Code of Conduct, but it then transpired that the vessel had actually changed hands and is now owned by another NGO which did sign the code. When this was brought to the attention of the Italian government, it allowed the boat to enter Italy.

With a million migrants on the North African coast waiting to cross over to Europe and with a relatively new Italian Prime Minster constantly under immense pressure for taking ever-increasing numbers of migrants, the situation is bound to explode.

What happens if the Italian government refuses to give access to other NGO boats in the coming days and weeks? Will these boats then try to come to Malta?

If there was a hushed-up agreement between former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and our Prime Minster, Joseph Muscat, will the current Italian Prime Minister continue to honour it?

Very pertinent questions indeed. My advice to our Prime Minister is to be prepared. This is a crisis waiting to happen.

A lawyer by profession, Frank Psaila anchors Iswed fuq l-Abjad on NET TV.

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