A Spanish warship under Nato command that rescued 111 migrants has been refused entry to Malta after it headed towards the island despite the rescue operation being closer to Tunisia and Lampedusa.

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici yesterday said the Nato command in Naples had not yet replied to questions sent on Tuesday as to why the Spanish frigate was ordered to head towards Malta and whether similar requests for disembarkation of the rescued migrants were made to Tunisia and Italy.

“The problem is not Malta’s, it is Nato’s,” Dr Mifsud Bonnici said yesterday, defending the government’s decision to refuse the Spanish warship entry.

The frigate, the Almirante Juan de Borbón, is currently in international waters off Malta.

According to the minister, the rescue operation took place on Monday outside Malta’s search and rescue area. The migrant boat, which had left from Libya, was 78 nautical miles from Tunisia, 88 nautical miles from Lampedusa and 141 nautical miles from Malta when the frigate took aboard its migrants, mostly men.

The rescue and coordination centre in Malta was informed on Sunday that a migrant boat needed assistance outside the country’s search and rescue area. Malta sent out a distress signal to all ships in the area and a tug boat crew tried to help but was unable to repair the engine.

Subsequently the Spanish Nato warship was on site to rescue the migrants.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said the army was only informed by Nato that the warship was heading towards the island some 18 hours after the rescue operation took place and when the frigate was 40 nautical miles away from Malta.

“Malta is a sovereign state and it demands that it be respected as such. This is not a standoff with Spain or Italy and we await Nato’s replies,” he said, insisting international law stipulated that people rescued at sea had to be taken to the nearest safe port of call.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said he discussed the issue with his Spanish counterpart and told him that the ship’s “unilateral decision to head towards Malta was strange”.

However, Spain shrugged off responsibility, saying that the ship was under Nato’s command.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said he was not aware of any decision by the Italians to refuse the Spanish warship entry into Lampedusa and added there had been no communication with Italy.

Army commander Brigadier Martin Xuereb, who was also present for the briefing with the minister, said the circumstances of this case were different from the usual situations since the migrants were currently on a warship that was well-equipped and also had medical facilities on board.

However, Malta has accepted the disembarkation of five migrants who needed medical assistance that was not available on board the ship. A pregnant woman, a man and a 10-month-old baby and his parents were transferred to Mater Dei Hospital after they were brought ashore by a ship helicopter.

“Malta will accept the transfer of migrants on humanitarian grounds but in the meantime we await Nato’s replies,” Dr Mifsud Bonnici said.

The government’s decision not to allow the Spanish warship to put the migrants ashore in Malta was criticised by human rights organisation Aditus.

Aditus chairman Neil Falzon said a warship was not the place to provide urgent physical and psychological assistance and called on the Maltese and Italian authorities to allow the migrants to disembark. Similar remarks were made by the Jesuit Refugee Service, which expressed grave concern at the predicament of the rescued migrants, including children.

“It is completely unacceptable that people fleeing from a country in conflict are refused access to a place of safety and left stranded at sea for days, while states decide their fate,” JRS Malta Director Fr Joseph Cassar said.

“JRS understands the states’ legitimate concerns regarding the long-term implications of allowing the migrants to disembark on national territory but believes that people are more important. Attempts to limit the number of irregular arrivals should never be at the cost of human rights.”

Kept in the dark

The media was kept in the dark as to the situation that was developing on the high seas despite the fact that government had known since Tuesday that the Spanish warship was heading to Malta without authorisation.

In a scant media release on Wednesday the army only said that a young child and his parents were medically evacuated from a Spanish ship and brought to Mater Dei Hospital by the ship’s helicopter.

When this newspaper enquired about what appeared to be strange circumstances surrounding the evacuation, the army said it had no more information.

However, when asked yesterday why the government and the army only reacted publicly two full days after the squabble with Nato developed, Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici would only say that it was not normal for the army and government to comment while a rescue operation was ongoing.

It seems the government was yesterday forced to react after the medical evacuations raised eyebrows and the media discovered that the circumstances were anything but normal.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com