Malta to let stranded asylum seekers disembark ahead of redistribution in EU

Le navire de sauvetage Sea Watch 3 près des côtes maltaises le 4 janvier 2019.                  REUTERS  Darrin Zammit Lupi

The Netherlands, Germany, France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxembourg and Italy have offered to take in the group, which includes six minors, three of whom were travelling alone.

The deal means the 49 migrants, who have been stranded on charity-run boats amid a row over who would take them, can now disembark in Malta.

Following Wednesday's deal, Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accused the European Commission of "facilitating the work of smugglers and NGOs".

The migrants arrived in Malta on Wednesday afternoon after being transferred from the Sea-Watch 3 and Dutch-flagged Albrecht Penck ships to Maltese coastguard vessels.

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The numbers reaching Spain have surged as Italy's crackdowns on private rescue vessels caused the number of boats and migrants heading across the central Mediterranean toward Italian shores to drop sharply.

The deal also decides the future of another 249 rescued migrants already in the island nation.

The migrants had been picked up off the coast of Libya and were not in Maltese territorial waters, he pointed out.

"Malta is a very small country and it is in our nature to assist those in distress, but as Prime Minister I can not shirk the responsibility of safeguarding our national security and national interest".

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But Italy's coalition government remains starkly divided over the issue.

Alter said eight countries have now indicated their willingness to take in the migrants but talks are ongoing with more.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said five unaccompanied child migrants would be taken in from Malta as a gesture of solidarity and humanitarian assistance.

"Whether it's eight or 88, I'm not authorizing anyone to enter Italy", Salvini told reporters in Poland, during a visit to his allies in the right-wing populist government there. "Giving in to the pressures and threats of Europe and NGOs is a sign of weakness".

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Early in the stalemate, Mr Muscat had also struck a defiant note, saying his tiny island nation would not let the 49 people set foot on Malta unless the deal included an agreement for fellow European Union countries to take numerous 249 migrants who Maltese military ships had rescued in its search-and-rescue area in late December.

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