The stand-off between Malta, Spain, and NATO continues. 111 rescued migrants remain on board the Spanish Navy frigate, the Almirante Juan de Borbón. Maltese authorities criticised the attempt to bring the rescued migrants to Malta and have said that the migrants should have been taken to Tunisia or Italy because both locations were closer to the original point of rescue. Malta has now allowed a total of 5 migrants to be airlifted to Malta for medical care. The frigate remains at sea near Malta with the 111 migrants, including women and children, and a crew of 250 sailors.
At a press conference yesterday, Maltese Interior Minister, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, said that while Malta decided to allow the transfer of several rescued migrants to Malta for emergency medical treatment, it has no intention of allowing the other rescued migrants to be disembarked in Malta. According to the Times of Malta, Mifsud Bonnici said “the problem is not Malta’s, it is Nato’s. Malta is a sovereign state and it demands that it be respected as such. This is not a standoff with Spain or Italy and we await Nato’s replies.”
It is unclear from various media reports whether Italian authorities formally refused permission to the Spanish frigate to dock in Lampedusa, but some reports suggest there was communication with Italian authorities who said that Lampedusa’s immigrant reception facilities were at capacity. Well over a thousand migrants have landed in Lampedusa in recent days.
There are also some media reports which suggest that the Spanish government may be taking the position that since the Spanish frigate is under NATO command as part of Operation Unified Protector, NATO therefore must decide where the migrants are to be disembarked.
The head of the Armed Forces of Malta has taken the bizarre position that the Spanish ship is well-equipped to care for the rescued migrants and that therefore there is no urgency in regard to removing the migrants from the ship for humanitarian reasons.
Meanwhile, the NATO naval embargo of Libya is missing one ship. NATO had 17 ships under its command patrolling the Central Mediterranean, now there are 16 ships. The Spanish frigate has been effectively removed from its embargo duties as it waits for a resolution to the stand-off. If and when another migrant boat requires rescue by a ship under NATO command, will the NATO embargo be further weakened? The obligations of NATO ships to rescue migrant boats in distress under SOLAS are clear, and NATO has repeatedly said that it will rescue migrant boats when required, but one must be fearful of a situation arising, as it does with commercial ships, where a NATO vessel’s commander may be less willing to conclude that a migrant boat is in need of rescue knowing that the act of rescuing the migrants may result in the NATO ship being removed from its mission because it is unable to quickly disembark the rescued migrants.