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France says Malta may let migrant rescue ship dock

The dangerous sea route from Northern Africa to Italy has been the main route into Europe for asylum seekers from Africa, hundreds of thousands of whom have reached Italy.

FILE: Survivors rescued from the Mediterranean by the Aquarius, which is operated by the Medecins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee charities. Picture: unhcr.org.

PARIS - Malta appears ready to allow the rescue ship Lifeline, stuck for a fifth day in international waters in the Mediterranean with more than 230 migrants aboard, to enter one of its ports after Italy refused, a French government spokesman said on Tuesday.

In Valletta, sources close to the Maltese government told Reuters a final decision was still pending.

“No final decision has been made yet but if the ship comes in, the understanding is that the migrants will be shared among EU countries,” one of the sources said. Lifeline said one person had to be evacuated for medical reasons and that general conditions onboard were worsening.

A new Italian government co-led by the anti-immigrant League party has shaken Europe’s migration policy, announcing that it will no longer permit ships operated by charities that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean to dock on Italian shores.

The dangerous sea route from Northern Africa to Italy has been the main route into Europe for asylum seekers from Africa, hundreds of thousands of whom have reached Italy over the past few years, with many thousands dying at sea. Most who survive the journey have been rescued in international waters off the coast of North Africa.

A solution for the Lifeline was broached in discussions on Monday between French President Emmanuel Macron and Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said.

'EUROPEAN SOLUTION'

“A European solution may be to have the ship dock in Malta. It is the solution that seems to be shaping up at the moment,” Griveaux told RTL radio, without elaborating. “France would then be ready to send a team there to study individual (asylum) requests,” he said.

In a statement, the Maltese Prime Minister said that Malta had been participating in discussions with Brussels to find a diplomatic solution for the Lifeline that involves “the sharing of responsibility by a number of member states”.

It also said it would investigate Lifeline’s captain’s behaviour after he ignored instructions to let the Libyan coastguard pick up the migrants.

On Tuesday, Malta denied charity ship Aquarius access to its port for re-supply and crew change, without providing any explanation for the decision, humanitarian group Doctors without Borders (MSF) said on Twitter. Earlier this month, the Aquarius, carrying more than 600 migrants, was stranded before it was accepted by Spain.

A Danish cargo ship, the Alexander Maersk, carrying more than 100 rescued migrants and not covered by Italy’s ban on charity ships, was permitted to dock on Tuesday in the port of Pozzallo on the Italian island of Sicily.

Immigration has become an urgent political issue across Europe in recent weeks since the new government took power in Italy and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition split over the issue.

Europe took in more than a million migrants, mainly asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, in 2015. Since then, the numbers have fallen sharply.

One main route, from Turkey to Greece, was largely shut in 2016, and numbers have fallen to tens of thousands so far this year from hundreds of thousands in recent years on the other main route, to Italy.

But the issue still sharply divides European governments and has led to a surge in anti-immigrant and far-right political movements across the continent.

Countries that have taken in large numbers of asylum seekers want other EU countries to share the burden. Eastern European states, which have taken in among the smallest numbers so far, refuse to accept more and have turned the issue into a central focus for nationalist governments.

Leaders of the European Union failed on Sunday to come up with a joint position to tackle migration and will try again at a summit at the end of this week.