A group of 44 people who were stranded at sea aboard a wooden boat are being brought to Malta.

The stranded migrants were first spotted 58 nautical miles south of Lampedusa late on Tuesday and within Malta’s search and rescue zone.

Maltese officials sent out an alert to all vessels within the area, which merchant vessel Just Fitz III answered. The Marshall Islands-flagged vessel reached the stranded people just after midnight and rescued them.

Italy, which has adopted a 'closed ports' policy towards all migrants, refused to take in the stranded vessel despite Lampedusa being the closest port of safety. 

"We had to send a patrol boat because of deteriorating weather conditions," sources told Times of Malta. "Since they were in danger, we had to take them in".

The vessel is now en route to Malta and is expected to dock shortly before midnight, the sources added.

The government said in a statement the migrants were being disembarked without prejudice to Malta’s position to international law.

Malta insists that people stranded at sea must be brought to shore at the closest safe port. Italy has for years applied a variant of that maritime law provision and said that people rescued should be taken to the country whose search and rescue zone they were found in.