Spain and several other countries agreed Thursday to admit 51 African migrants who have spent nearly a week drifting off the coast of Malta in a fishing boat. The agreement ends an embarrassing standoff over their fate.
The Eritrean immigrants were rescued at sea by a Spanish fishing trawler more than a week ago. But that was not the end of their journey. They remained packed in the boat off the Maltese coast for days while Spain, Malta and Libya wrangled over who should offer them refuge.
The immigrants included several children and a pregnant woman, who was finally allowed on shore for treatment in Malta Tuesday. But the rest were left in limbo, prompting the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to criticize the standoff between the three nations.
On Thursday, the Spanish foreign ministry announced a compromise had finally been reached. The immigrants will be divided among Spain, Malta, Libya, Italy and the European principality of Andorra. Malta's foreign minister hailed the agreement as an example of how the region could share the burden of immigration from Africa.
But the agreement does not offer a broader solution to the thousands of illegal African immigrants who have flocked to Europe in recent months. More than 10,000 migrants have landed on Spain's Canary Islands this year alone, twice as many as in 2005. Immigration has also spiked in Malta, and the government says it cannot handle the deluge.
The European Union has announced a series of measures to crack down on illegal immigration from Africa and elsewhere. At a news conference in Brussels Wednesday, European Union Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini said the EU would also be sending a patrol mission to the Mediterranean around Malta. He said Malta may receive other aid, which European ministers will discuss next week.
"And to help Malta in terms of supplementary financial assistance that I could unlock by announcing concrete measures, I'm sorry to the ministers first, on Monday," he said.
Countries across Europe are adopting harsher measures against illegal immigration, including increasing the numbers of expulsions. But they agree, in principle at least, that they must also help African nations in particular tackle poverty and underdevelopment, if they are to find long-lasting solutions to the immigration dilemma.