Stock photo: Pope Francis welcomes a group of Syrian refugees in Rome (Photo: Reuters)
Pope Francis has urged EU leaders to grant a safe port to 49 asylum seekers currently stranded on NGO-run vessels in Maltese waters.
“I make a heartfelt appeal to European leaders to show concrete solidarity for these people, who are seeking a safe port where they can disembark,” the Pope said in a speech at St Peter’s Square to mark the feast of the Epiphany.
The 49 asylum seekers are currently stranded in Maltese waters on two NGO-run vessels, the Sea-Watch 3 and the Sea-Eye. No EU country has accepted these migrants but Malta allowed them to enter its waters earlier this week due to bad weather.
However, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat insisted today that Malta will not let take the migrants in, warning that such an act could set a precedent and risk turning the island into a centre for asylum seekers rescued by NGO-run vessels.
“We need to strike a balance between human kindness and national security and we will ask the EU if accepting these people will set a precedent,” he said. “It’s a point of principle for us. It would have been very easy to play the Christmas saint, but then January, February and the summer months would have come along and we would have had to be coherent. We are currently in talks with the EU and other countries and are asking them what will happen if this situation repeats itself.”
The situation has led to diplomatic tension between Italy and Malta, with Italy’s deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio accusing Malta of refusing to dock the ships despite them being in Maltese waters. The Maltese government retorted that the migrants had been rescued in an area that was outside Malta’s search and rescue region and that the ships only sought refuse in Maltese territorial waters after Italy denied them passage.
“There are those who have closed their ports and are flexing their muscles, while little Malta didn’t kick up a fuss when it rescued 250 people recently,” Muscat said, in a clear dig at the Italian government. “We will not politically cave in to people who act the bully and who are doing as they please. If that happens, then their supporters will cheer them on while tiny Malta, which follows the law and saves people’s lives, ends up a victim and appears weak.”