Migrants on board the Aquarius land in Valencia. (Photo: Al Jazeera)
However, Muscat argued today that the two stances are not mutually incompatible and that Malta had to reject the people on board the Aquarius – a ship run by a search and rescue NGO – our of principle.
“Malta’s job market would have been able to absorb these people and indeed I will be the first to admit that the country needs more foreign workers,” he said in an interview on ONE Radio. “However, we are talking here about a point of principle. While we need foreigners to expand our economy further, we need them to come here legally and we need to know who they are and how they are coming here.”
A diplomatic spat erupted between Malta and Italy this week, after Italys new home affairs minister Matteo Salvini closed the country’s ports to the Aquarius and demanded that Malta take them in on the grounds that the ship was closer to the island than to Italy. However, Muscat refused to allow the ship entry, arguing that it had picked up the asylum seekers in waters closer to the Italian island of Lampedusa than to Malta. The asylum seekers were eventually accepted by Spain, whose new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said taking them in was a humanitarian obligation.
Asylum seekers on board the Aquarius ship
In his interview today, Muscat insisted that Malta’s refusal of the Aquarius was based solely on international law and that it would have welcomed it with open arms had it picked up the asylum seekers closer to Malta.
“Some people praised me by telling me that we shouldn’t accept any [asylum seekers], but the only reason I refused them was because they weren’t our responsibility according to international law, a point that the European Commission and all international NGOs agreed with,” he said.
Muscat also called for an immediate thawing in diplomatic relations between Malta and Italy, arguing that Malta welcomes Italians seeking work here with open arms.
“I felt emotional when I saw posts on social media by the Italian community in Malta saying that Malta acted correctly [in the Aquarius case] and calling Malta their new home,” he said. “We need to strike a balance between firmness and maintaining the best possible relationship with Italy.”