Malta, Accused of Disabling Migrant Boat, Flouts Port Closure by Rescuing Sinking Vessel Off Coast

A group of North African migrants aboard a sinking vessel off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea were brought ashore early Friday, a day after the government declared it could no longer guarantee the rescue or disembarkation of those seeking refuge and closed its harbors.

Sixty-four migrants were intercepted by the Maltese armed forces wearing bio-hazard suits, Reuters reported. The migrants were placed in detention in accordance with a 14-day quarantine imposed by the island nation.

"It is in the interest, and is the responsibility, of such people not to endanger themselves on a risky voyage to a country which is not in a position to offer them a secure harbour," the government said in a statement.

The rescue comes a day after the government, following a similar Italian announcement, shuttered its borders to travelers, and after a report in The New York Times claimed the Maltese armed forces were responsible for cutting power to the engine of a migrant boat and setting it adrift.

Both Italy, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Italy, and Malta, along with neighboring Greece and Spain have since 2015 attempted to mitigate migration from North Africa, particularly in Libya, since more than 1 million people seeking safe passage landed on European soil.

"In the light of the magnitude of these pressures, it is considered that the Maltese authorities are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of prohibited immigrants on board of any boats, ships or other vessels, nor to ensure the availability of a 'safe place' on the Maltese territory to any persons rescued at sea," the Maltese government said in a statement to the European Commission.

With the outbreak quarantine stretching across much of mainland Europe, with far more cases than have been reported in North Africa, officials worry that additional migrants may weight heavy on overwhelmed healthcare systems.

Malta has 319 active cases of the novel virus, with 2 deaths and 16 recoveries, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, shows the spread of COVID-19 around the globe as of April 9.

coronavirus, map, covid-19, countries, world
A graphic provided by Statista shows the global spread of the new coronavirus as of early April 9. More than 1.5 million people have been afflicted, over 346,000 of whom have recovered and over 93,000 of whom have died. Statista

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Malta, Accused of Disabling Migrant Boat, Flouts Port Closure by Rescuing Sinking Vessel Off Coast | World