Nato has not yet responded to Malta's questions about a rescue operation of immigrants by a Spanish warship in international waters last Sunday.

Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici told journalists this evening that Malta awaited explanations about the rescue of 111 migrants found in a drifting boat outside Malta's search and rescue area on Sunday morning.

The boat's engine had failed and although a tug boat's crew tried to render assistance, they were unable to repair the engine.

Malta's rescue coordination centre issued a notice of ships in distress and assetts on site were obliged to assist.

The migrants then requested rescue and were picked up by a Spanish destroyer, the Almirante Juan de Borbón, 78 nautical miles away from Tunisia, 88 nautical miles from Lampedusa and 141 nautical miles from Malta.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said that the Spanish warship, which is under Nato command, headed to Malta. However, Malta was only informed of this decision 18 hours after the rescue and when the Spanish ship was just 40 nautical miles from the island.

Malta then asked the Nato command in Naples why the immigrants were being brought here and whether similar requests for disembarkation were submitted to Tunisia and Italy. Dr Mifsud Bonnici said Malta had not received replies to its questions.

So far the Spanish destroyer has been refused permission to come to Malta. It is currently in international waters.

Army commander Brigadier Martin Xuereb said the warship had medical facilities on board so the migrants were safe on a well-equipped ship.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said he discussed the issue with his Spanish counterpart and told him that the ship's "unilateral decision was strange". Spain is saying that the ship is under Nato's command.

There has been no communication with Italy.

The minister insisted this was not a stand off with Spain or Italy but Malta, as a sovereign state demanded it be respected.

"The problem is not Malta's, it is Nato's."

Malta was ready to accept humanitarian cases if their medical condition could not be covered by the medical facilities on board.

A 10-month-old baby who needed medical attention was flown to Malta from the Spanish destroyer yesterday and was followed today by the medical evacuation of a young man and a woman. The woman is pregnant.

Earlier, media reports quoted a Nato spokesman saying that following Sunday's rescue the Ghanaian, Tunisian and Libyan migrants were on Monday transferred onto the warship  in accordance with the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) protocol.

The reports also claimed the warship proceeded to Lampedusa but the Italian authorities refused it entry  and directed the vessel to Malta.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said Malta had no information that Italy had refused the disembarkation of the migrants.

'UNACCEPTABLE SITUATION' - JRS

The Jesuit Refugee Service Malta in a statement  expressed grave concern at the predicament of the migrants and called upon the States concerned to allow them to disembark immediately pending a final agreement on who will assume responsibility for them.

“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”, said Fr Joseph Cassar SJ, JRS Malta Director.

“While we understand States’ legitimate concerns regarding the long-term implications of allowing the migrants to disembark on national territory, we believe that people are more important. Attempts to limit the number of irregular arrivals should never be at the cost of human rights,” he added.

"This case, like others before it, highlights the lack of clarity surrounding the rules on treatment of irregular migrants rescued at sea. Their situation is further complicated by the operation of the Dublin Regulation, which places responsibility for the protection of asylum seekers entering irregularly on the State where they first enter the Union, making States reluctant to allow potential asylum seekers to disembark on their territory even temporarily."

JRS Malta called upon the governments of Malta, Italy and Spain to give priority to the safety of the migrants stranded on board the Almirante Juan de Borbón, by allowing them to disembark immediately even before a final decision is taken regarding who should assume responsibility for them.

The migrants should also be allowed access to a country where they can apply for protection if they need it, in line with their international obligations, JRS said.

 

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