VALLETTA/MALTA, TUNIS: Southern European leaders called for a fair distribution of migrants arriving from across the Mediterranean as the latest NGO boat carrying rescued families was denied a safe port by Italy.
The leaders of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain said on Friday the EU should “guarantee effective implementation of the principle of solidarity and fair burden-sharing between member states.”
A joint declaration at the end of the summit in Valletta also said “efforts to break the smugglers’ business model need to be further enhanced, with the aim to also prevent tragic loss of life.”
A day earlier, dozens of migrants rescued in international waters off Tunisia are still stranded 15 days later as authorities refuse to allow the boat carrying them to access a nearby port, the UN said late Friday.
Egyptian tugboat Maridive 601 rescued 75 migrants off the southern Tunisian coast in late May after they embarked from Libya, a key launchpad for sub-Saharan Africans making dangerous bids to reach Europe by sea.
The vessel has been anchored since May 31 off the southern port of Zarzis, where authorities have refused to allow the vessel to dock despite an appeal by the boat’s captain.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Friday that the vessel’s owners have since been providing those aboard with food and water.
Tunisian officials contacted by AFP refused to comment on the situation, although an Interior Ministry official said last week, on condition of anonymity, that “the migrants want to be welcomed by a European country.”
Humanitarian groups say Tunisia, which has already received several hundred migrants since the start of the year, is reluctant to take on more new arrivals, demanding that they agree to be repatriated before being allowed to enter Tunisian territory.
The IOM said at least 32 unaccompanied minors were on the boat, and offered to help Tunisia host the migrants.
It added that 10 of those aboard the boat — nine Egyptians and a Moroccan — had expressed interested in returning home.
“We ask for the reinstatement of mechanisms to care for migrants rescued at sea” to prevent similar incidents in the future, said IOM’s Tunisia head Lorena Lando.
In 2018, Tunisian authorities prevented more than 11,400 irregular crossings of the Mediterranean, Interior Minister Hichem Fourati told parliament on Friday.
He said they had also arrested hundreds of people suspected of involvement in people-trafficking.
So far this year, Tunisian forces have intercepted some 428 clandestine migrants, he added.
The wording appeared to target the boats of non-governmental organizations that rescue migrants from the Mediterranean, but which are accused by far-right politicians such as Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of encouraging human trafficking.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the summit voiced “frustration” that the EU “talks about solidarity without applying it.”
The German-operated Sea Watch 3 NGO rescue vessel is currently off Italy’s southern Lampedusa island with 53 migrants on board who were rescued off the coast of Libya and since denied entry to Italian ports.
Salvini says that the rescue boats prevent the Libyan coast guard from picking up the migrants and returning them to Libya.
“All vessels operating in the Mediterranean must respect the applicable international laws and not obstruct operations of the Libyan Coast Guard,” the summit statement said.
Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister and leads the powerful right-wing League party in the coalition, has issued a decree ordering law enforcement authorities to take all necessary measures to prevent the entry into or transit through Italian waters of such ships.
Salvini has seen his popularity soar in the last year with a hard line against migrants which has included closing ports to rescue vessels.
Sea Watch International on Friday tweeted that its vessel was “still waiting for a port of safety 16 miles off Lampedusa,” calling for people to sign a petition for the migrants to be taken in by German cities.
Salvini said the vessel was now “wandering around the Mediterranean forcing women, men and children into unnecessary suffering.”
Italy and Malta, the closest countries to North Africa, said ahead of the summit that more should be done to stop migrants leaving, including by bolstering the training and resources of the Libyan coast guard.
Rome and Valletta insist on there being a fair distribution of migrants to other EU countries, while countries such as France say migrants should disembark at the closest port and then be voluntarily redistributed around Europe.
More than 12,000 people have died since 2014 trying to flee Libya to Europe by what the UN refugee agency calls the “world’s deadliest sea crossing.”
The seven nations meeting in Malta on Friday represent close to 40 percent of the EU’s population and gross domestic product and half of its coastline, Malta said.