Updated 8.21pm with Opposition leader's statement -

Opposition leader Adrian Delia insisted on Tuesday that Malta should rise above populism and put human lives first as some 500 migrants remained stranded in the Central Mediterranean on two rescue ships.

In a statement, Dr Delia said that Malta, as a small country, could not physically assume the responsibility of larger states for the distribution of displaced people.

"Unfortunately, displaced men, women and children are being used as political pawns - or rather as human pawns. This is totally unacceptable. Whilst we are enjoying the summer vacations - as is our right, men, women and especially children are stranded on rescue boats in the scorching heat of the Mediterranean.

"Political action to do the right thing is lacking. As leaders, we have a moral obligation to speak out for the most vulnerable and perishing. We need to rise above populism where human lives are concerned and do the right thing," he said in a Facebook post.

We need to rise above populism where human lives are concerned, and do the right thing

"As the Opposition party in Malta, we urge the government to stop the current, inhumane, situation of people waiting, desperately, to be given shelter. That should then be followed with immediate action by EU member states to step in and distribute people accordingly. But first things first - and human beings come first.

"As Opposition leader, I urge the government to take in the vulnerable people currently stranded on rescue ships. We are willing to help government, politically, to make Malta's case, forcefully, with our European counterparts. Malta is a small country but with a big heart. Let's lead by example, rise above populism, and put human lives first and foremost."

No formal requests for the European Commission to resolve migrant crisis

Earlier on Tuesday, the European Commission confirmed that it had not received any formal requests from Malta or other EU member state to coordinate efforts to resolve the plight of the 500 migrants.

The rescue ship Ocean Viking currently has 356 rescued people aboard and nowhere to take them. The Open Arms is carrying a further 151 people who have been denied entry into European ports. It has been stuck at sea for 12 days.

Both vessels have been denied entry to Italian ports. Spain has said that it has no responsibility in the case. Malta has only offered to take 39 migrants from the Open Arms since they were picked up in the Malta search and rescue region. 

The European Commission spokeswoman said that the EC had reached out to member states asking them to show solidarity and find a quick solution for the Open Arms and Ocean Viking, but that any solution depended on the willingness of member states, as the Commission had no competence in this regard. 

“As we have done at each occasion when requested over the past year, the Commission stands ready to coordinate the redistribution process on the ground with the participating member states and EU agencies. The Commission will, as always, do its utmost to help find a solution,” the spokeswoman said.

A protester holds a cut-out of Matteo Salvini's head upside down during a march against the criminalisation of rescue missions held in Barcelona. Photo: AFPA protester holds a cut-out of Matteo Salvini's head upside down during a march against the criminalisation of rescue missions held in Barcelona. Photo: AFP

“We therefore reiterate our call to member states to show solidarity and contribute to swift resolutions. We urge all parties to cooperate and ensure that the humanitarian imperative comes first. We are talking about people. The priority for everyone should be ensuring these people receive the care they need.”

No progress

A spokesman for the Office of the Prime Minister told Times of Malta there was no new information on a potential solution.

A Spanish government minister on Tuesday dismissed a request by the Open Arms to grant asylum to minors aboard the vessel, saying the NGO did not have the legal authority to make such a request. The Open Arms is operated by the Spanish NGO Proactiva.

Italy's right-wing home affairs minister Matteo Salvini reiterated his hardline stance on Twitter.

"Hard at work since this morning to prevent the disembarkation of 500 migrants aboard two NGO ships," he tweeted. 

Earlier on Tuesday, the UN refugee agency described the situation as a “race against time” and urged European governments to immediately provide a port of safety for the stranded migrants and to share responsibility once they have disembarked. 

On Monday, president emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca made a similar plea, saying European politicians “should be ashamed of themselves” for their lack of empathy. 

An estimated 600 people died while trying to cross the Mediterranean between January and June this year, according to UN International Organisation for Migration calculations.

The danger of that sea crossing was brought into sharp relief on Tuesday morning when the Armed Forces of Malta published a photo showing two emaciated men lying on a rubber dinghy afloat at sea, with seemingly no water or food. One of the men had already died by the time AFM forces arrived.

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