ROME, Aug 7 (Reuters) – Italy on Wednesday allowed 102 migrants who were stranded on a tanker in the Mediterranean to disembark on the Sicilian coast after Malta refused them entry for three days despite European Union calls for it to help on humanitarian grounds.
The migrants, mainly from north Africa, were rescued from a boat 24 miles (39 km) off the Libyan coast on Sunday by the Liberian-registered tanker Salamis. The tanker then headed for Malta but was refused entry to Maltese water by the government.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat resisted calls from EU authorities to let the migrants in, saying they were not in distress. He said the ship’s captain had ignored orders by rescue authorities to send the ship back to Libya.
Muscat thanked Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta for the decision to take in the migrants, who included four pregnant women, an injured woman and a baby, saying it would “further reinforce good relations between the two countries.”
The tanker arrived in Syracuse in Sicily at around midday on Wednesday. The migrants will be transferred to a reception centre after undergoing health and police checks.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom welcomed Italy’s move but added on Twitter that it “would be great if all 28 EU members would help.”
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR also praised what it called “a humanitarian gesture of great value”.
Not everyone agreed however, with the deputy secretary of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League party Matteo Salvini saying that Italy looked ridiculous.
“This government has proved it is more attentive and more hospitable to illegal immigrants than to Italians,” Salvini said in a statement.
North Africa is a launch-point for migration to southern Europe, with Italy a main destination. Thousands of people have been killed attempting the dangerous crossing in overcrowded and frequently unsafe boats.
The UNHCR estimates that more than 7,800 migrants reached the Italian coast in the first six months of this year.
Nearby Malta has also faced a record influx of African migrants recently, with about 1,000 arriving in the past month.
Last month the Italian coastguard coordinated the rescue of 22 migrants after their boat sank off the coast of Libya, but 31 others were feared drowned following the incident, including a baby and four pregnant women, according to the UNHCR.
Pope Francis visited the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa in July, where tens of thousands of migrants arrived during the Arab Spring unrest in North Africa in 2011. He held a Mass there to commemorate the people who have died when making such journeys. (Reporting by Catherine Hornby, additional reporting by Chris Scicluna in Valletta, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)
(c) 2013 Thomson Reuters