A humanitarian ship that has had about 230 rescued migrants on board for almost a week will enter a Maltese port on Wednesday, ending a standoff with Italy which refused to let the ship dock.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said seven European Union countries had offered to share the burden of the migrants with Malta. The Lifeline ship, operated by German charity Mission Lifeline, was due to dock at around 1600 GMT.
Migration has become an urgent political issue across the EU in recent weeks, since the new Italian government took power earlier this month and Germany’s ruling coalition split over the issue.
“Lifeline will be granted permission to enter a Maltese port, where procedures for identification, ascertaining their asylum eligibility, and distribution to other member states will start immediately,” Muscat told reporters.
“The Maltese government took the lead on a solution before the situation escalated to a humanitarian crisis,” he added, emphasizing, however, that the small island nation was not legally bound to take in the vessel.
The Lifeline is the second charity ship that Italy has shut out of its ports this month after the new anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said private rescue vessels would no longer be welcome because they “cannot dictate Italy’s immigration policy”.
Muscat said that permitting the ship to dock in Malta was a one-time, or “ad-hoc”, resolution to the standoff. While 650,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea since 2014, Malta has allowed in only those needing urgent medical care.
A summit between EU leaders that will tackle the bloc’s common framework for managing migration will be held in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
Germany was not among the countries that agreed to take in some of the migrants on the Lifeline.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian conservatives whose hardline stance on migration has pushed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition to the brink of collapse, told lawmakers in Berlin there was no need for Germany to take in any of the migrants since other countries had volunteered.
He said the case underscored the need for common European guidelines on migration, and the most “humane and Christian” solution was to combat the causes of migration and flight.
Italy, Ireland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal “agreed to collaborate to offer a European solution” for the ship, a statement from Muscat’s office said.
“This is a great victory,” Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said on Twitter, while Salvini called it “another success of the Italian government”.
The ship will be detained and the captain questioned, Muscat said, because of its refusal to leave the migrant boats to be intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, as it had been told to do by Italian authorities.
Lifeline has repeatedly said that allowing the Libyan coastguard to take the migrants back would have broken international law because the North African country is unsafe for them.
Germany’s Seehofer said migrants picked up in the Mediterranean should be returned to “robust protective zones” when they could receive aid and legal processes could occur.