Updated 8pm with prime minister's comments

The Maltese government has accused NGOs rescuing refugees from the Mediterranean of "exacerbating the problem of irregular migration" and "facilitating" human trafficking.

In a statement issued on Friday, the ministers for foreign and home affairs said that the closure of Italian and Maltese ports had not stopped NGOs from pursuing operations in the Mediterranean, "while facilitating, directly or indirectly, the business model of people smugglers, by intercepting migrants just outside Libyan territorial waters."

Ministers Evarist Bartolo and Byron Camilleri said they had discussed the situation in Libya with the north African country's ambassador.

Instability had not only hindered Libya's capacity to deal with COVID-19, but it had also led to the release of migrants from detention centres, with people smugglers ready to seize the opportunity, they said.

Bartolo and Camilleri also held talks with Germany's ambassador about the NGO vessel Alan Kurdi.

The search-and-rescue vessel carries the German flag and recently rescued 150 people who fled Libya.

"It eventually turned out that, not only was the vessel not guaranteed a port of entry, but it did not have a sufficient supply of food, medicine and sanitary products to take care of the migrants it intercepted.

"It was observed that such operations have led to a surge in the exodus from Libya and that its actions are exacerbating the problem of irregular migration," the ministers added.

The meetings with Libya's, Germany's, and also Italy's ambassadors were held to formally communicate Malta's position: that it should not carry the burden of migrant trafficking.

Camilleri also spoke to the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, insisting that the EU must shoulder its responsibility, particularly in these trying times. 

Meetings were held one day after Malta announced that it would no longer accept any migrants rescued at sea and could not guarantee that it would come to the aid of any migrant vessels in distress. 

The decision mirrored one taken by Italy's government, with both countries saying their ports are not safe due to pressures to manage the coronavirus pandemic. 

'There is no alternative' - Robert Abela

Interviewed during One News, Prime Minister Robert Abela said Malta had made an exception on Friday and brought in a group of migrants as they were already in Malta's search-and-rescue zone when Cabinet took the decision to stop all disembarkation of asylum seekers.

The decision to no longer accept migrants would have been excessive under normal circumstances, however there was no alternative in these unprecedented times.

"We are in a silent war without enough knowledge about our enemy," he said about the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the interview he said that the Armed Forces of Malta stop tens of migrant boats from entering the country's search-and-rescue zone, but this one had slipped through.

Together with the AFM personnel, he was going to spend a sleepless night, monitoring more boats headed to our shores, he added.

While Malta understood the reality of Libya's situation, people needed to understand the reality of our country, Abela said.

There were hundreds of thousands of people who want to flee Libya, and the first countries they will come across will be Malta and Lampedusa, he said, adding that so far, all Malta had received from the EU was sympathy and solidarity. 

Malta will react in kind, he added.

“Our priority is to safeguard the health of the Maltese and Gozitans... If the EU does not help us, we will have to continue defending our shores.

“We closed our ports to commercial flights and cruise liners – we cannot use two weights two measures with asylum seekers.”

NGOs 'shocked'

Malta's decision prompted shock among human rights NGOs and activists, who accused the government of exploiting the pandemic to "shelve its human rights obligations" and endanger lives. 

"There are minimum standards that must always be met, a threshold that no State is ever permitted cross," the NGOs said in a joint statement. 

"International law is clear: under no circumstances is Malta permitted to return persons to a territory where their lives and safety would be at risk. A public health emergency does not allow Malta to abandon people out at sea as it does not exonerate Malta from its responsibility to ensure that rescued persons are not returned to Libya." 

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Citing separate concerns about migrants being detained in Malta with limited access to healthcare, running water, soap or privacy, the NGOs expressed outrage at the way in which migrants were being treated as "disposable members of our community". 

"Migrants must not be sacrificed for the nation’s wellbeing," they said.

"National emergencies should be overcome with solidarity and compassion." 

The statement was issued by aditus Foundation on behalf of a group of 16 NGOs: 

1. aditus foundation
2. African Media Association Malta
3. Blue Door English
4. The Critical Institute
5. Cross Culture International Foundation
6. Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants
7. Integra Foundation
8. Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta)
9. KOPIN
10. Malta Emigrants’ Commission
11. Migrant Women Association Malta
12. People for Change Foundation
13. SOS Malta
14. Spark15
15. Sudanese Migrants Association
16. Syrian Solidarity in Malta

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