A boatload of 66 illegal migrants rescued just off Lampedusa were brought to Malta yesterday after Italy refused them entry even though they were four times closer to the Italian island than to Malta.

The government said this was being done for "strictly humanitarian reasons" and that those who did not qualify for protection would be repatriated accordingly.

The government also said it would be "communicating" with the Italian government about the incident, which comes hot on the heels of a similar turn of events that sparked a political dispute between the two countries. The migrants, coming from various countries including Bangladesh, Morocco, Nigeria and Ghana, disembarked in Malta at around 10 p.m., and were taken in for processing by the detention services.

Many were barefoot, looking tired and weak, having been at sea for at least two days, but none required urgent medical attention. The group included two women, one of whom had suffered severe dehydration, but her condition improved by the time the group landed here.

The rescue was carried out by the Maltese armed forces after Italy chose not to intervene, saying it did not have vessels available.

On Wednesday afternoon the immigrants made a distress call to Italy because they were adrift at sea on a rubber dinghy which had run out of fuel.

The buck was quickly passed to Malta which had to coordinate the rescue since the migrants were in its search and rescue zone, echoing what happened last week when it directed the Pinar E, a Turkish cargo ship, to rescue two boatloads of stranded immigrants in its search and rescue area. The Turkish cargo ship was not allowed to enter Italy's territorial waters until Italian ministers gave in after a four-day standoff.

Malta has always insisted that rescued migrants should be taken to the nearest safe port from the location they are rescued from.

This time, however, there were no cargo ships in the area, and when Italy was asked to intervene it said it did not have the vessels available to make the rescue, sources told The Times. Since there was a severely dehydrated woman on board, the AFM rushed to the area to rescue them.

The P-51 patrol boat was then refused entry by two Italian naval vessels, one from the coast guard and the other from the Guardia di Finanza just outside Italian territorial waters off Lampedusa.

At that point, the Maltese patrol boat was directed back to Malta.

The government has said very little about this latest issue, and a press statement by the armed forces did not even mention Italy. All it said was that a group of 66 migrants were rescued and will be brought to Malta.

This is the first such incident since the Pinar E dispute when the 140 migrants rescued on the Turkish cargo ship were refused entry even though they were closer to Lampedusa than Malta.

Italy eventually relented and the migrants were landed in Agrigento in Sicily. Italian and Maltese ministers subsequently met in Brussels to discuss the issue, but reportedly held firm to their positions.

Foreign Affairs Minister Tonio Borg had told The Times that if a similar but even worse humanitarian situation arose again Malta would hold its ground, and it would be Italy's responsibility. When contacted yesterday, the ministry chose not to comment.

cperegin@timesofmalta.com

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