Italy’s interior minister has said Malta should allow a Dutch-flagged rescue ship carrying hundreds of migrants rescued from rubber dinghies off the Libyan coast to make port there because it is in Maltese waters.
“We ask humanly and politically that Malta finally opens one of its ports and lets these desperate people disembark,” anti-migrant minister Matteo Salvini said.
Malta responded that it would “act according to the laws and applicable conventions”, without further explanation.
International law says Malta must respond if it is the nearest safe port at rescue or if requested by the ship’s captain.
The dynamic is similar to the stand-off over the Aquarius, operated by French aid groups, which eventually sailed an additional 900 miles last week to deliver 630 migrants to Spain after Malta and Italy refused to let it access their ports.
Mr Salvini is making good on an election promise to go after rescue ships run by aid groups, which he has likened to taxi services that help the migrant smugglers.
On Thursday he said he would not allow the ship, operated by the German NGO Mission Lifeline, to enter Italian ports, saying it had acted improperly by taking on board the 224 migrants that the Italian coastguard had assigned to the Libyan coastguard to rescue.
Mr Salvini said the rescue was in Libyan waters, which Lifeline denies.
Mission Lifeline said it has still not been assigned a port, despite its requests.
It said it picked up additional migrant passengers during another rescue overnight, and was heading north with 234 on board. It said it had responded to a request for help by a merchant vessel to help rescue 113 people.
Lifeline referred to reports that as many as 220 people were missing at sea presumed drowned, according to survivor statements to the UN refugee agency.
“The latest drownings show how important our sea rescue efforts are, and that not a single rescue ship can be missed,” said Mission Lifeline founder Axel Steier.
“The rescue of human lives must be prioritised before border control.”
More than 640,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since 2014. Arrivals are down 80% this year to around 14,500 as migrants have turned to other routes.