As Malta disembarks migrants more charity-govt clashes loom

Rescued migrants sleep on the Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediterranee and MSF, as they cruise in the Mediterranean Sea, in the early hours of Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Malta agreed Friday to disembark 356 migrants who were trapped for two weeks on the Ocean Viking, capping a week of standoffs between charities and governments that have exposed in dramatic ways Europe's inability to deal with migration from Africa. (Avra Fialas/SOS Mediterranee via AP)

Malta agreed Friday to disembark 356 migrants who were trapped for two weeks on a rescue ship in the central Mediterranean, capping a week of standoffs between charities and governments that have exposed in dramatic ways Europe’s inability to deal with migration from Africa.

The Maltese armed forces will be taking ashore the passengers from the Ocean Viking before they are distributed to France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Romania, the prime minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, announced on Friday in a series of tweets.

It was not immediately clear why the transfer to military vessels would happen in international waters and the charity boat wasn’t allowed to directly take the migrants to the port.

SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, the two charities running the Norwegian-flagged ship, had said that requests for docking had been previously denied by Malta and ignored by Italy.

Jay Berger, the operations manager of Doctors Without Borders on board the Ocean Viking, welcomed Malta’s decision but questioned why it took so long, and called for permanent European solutions to taking in rescued migrants.

“We are relieved that the long ordeal for the 356 people on board with us is finally over, but was it necessary to keep them waiting for two weeks of torment?” Berger said in a statement. “This is about people who have fled desperate conditions in their homelands and have survived the horrific violence in Libya.”

Their ordeal is the latest in a campaign against sea rescues that has disrupted the operations of at least 19 ships since Italy’s hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini ordered the closure of the country’s ports to aid groups.

Salvini and other Europeans blame the charities for aiding human trafficking mafias that operate off the Libyan coast. Activists and volunteers have been probed or prosecuted, while some governments have imposed administrative obstacles to their ships. The Spanish government of Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist, has threatened hefty fines if the Open Arms aid group actively conducts search and rescue missions without being asked to do so.

NGOs and activists say they are being demonized, mostly by populist and far-right politicians hungry for votes. They say they are filling a vacuum created by the inaction of the EU and its member states.

The Ocean Viking had been sailing between the island of Linosa and Malta since Aug. 9th, staying out of sight of land out of fear that could agitate the passengers.

SOS Mediterranee also called on Europe to devise standard solutions to taking in the migrants. Max Avis, who coordinates search and rescues for the aid group, told reporters Friday the current ad hoc approach to taking in migrants was adding to their suffering.

“The solution is only going to be a good one when we have a standard approach to these kinds of problems,” he told reporters in Berlin via satellite link from Marseille shortly before Malta’s announcement.

At least 75 of the migrants on the Ocean Viking have been treated for injuries sustained either from their flight from war zones or inflicted upon them by smugglers and criminals along the way, said Sam Turner with Doctors Without Borders.

“They experienced horrors during their time in Libya at the hands of traffickers and criminals … that I can only describe as torture,” he said speaking from Tripoli to reporters in Berlin via satellite link. “Beatings, sexual violence, and all sorts of horrific things that are really unimaginable.”

The NGOs said that once the rescued migrants have disembarked, the Ocean Viking will restock supplies, refuel and then continue with its mission.q