LONDON — Italy has agreed to take in more than 100 migrants who have been stranded for days on a tanker in the Mediterranean after Malta refused to allow them entry. Malta and other Mediterranean countries like Italy and Greece are calling for the European Union to share the burden as migrants flood to EU's entry points and, they say, swamp their local populations.
The migrants arrived in Italy on Wednesday. They were rescued from their badly damaged inflatable boat by a tanker off the coast of Libya on Sunday and had been stranded since then.
Four pregnant women and a five-month-old baby are believed to be among the group.
But Malta’s prime minister had said the migrants were not in distress and refused to allow them into his small island country.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat thanked Italy for accepting the migrants.
“We are happy that Italy agreed, of course, because the priority must be given to the assistance of the migrants who are in distress and in need of assistance,” said Flavio Di Giacomo from the International Organization for Migration, or IOM in Italy.
Malta is a top gateway for migrants attempting to reach Europe from Africa. According to the United Nations, last year more than 1,500 people arrived by sea, a large influx for a country with a population of only around 500,000.
Relative to its population, Malta receives the highest number of asylum applications in the world.
Christian Schweiger is a Europe expert at Durham University in the north of England. He said Malta was not alone in its struggle to cope with the influx of migrants.
“The countries like Spain, Italy and Malta - the ones at the southern front of the European Union - have been bombarded with thousands of migrants from particularly Africa in recent years. And these countries have been calling on the European Commission for help,” said Schweiger.
He said Malta, especially, felt it has been overburdened and that other European Union countries should share the load of asylum seekers from Africa.
Earlier this year the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly adopted a resolution to give greater support to so-called "frontline" countries, including by exploring new approaches to relocate refugees and asylum seekers within Europe.
But Schweiger said it’s a difficult road to navigate.
“The major problem is that we do not have a common European asylum policy and this is obviously the result of all countries in the European Union, particularly the large ones in Central Europe like Germany and France, wanting to maintain their own asylum policies,” he said.
What’s more, he said, central European countries had no desire to take on more migrants and preferred to let the frontline countries cope with the situation.
But he said for migrants the situation would only get worse if European countries did not start working together.
He said countries like Italy and Malta could stop accepting the migrants.
"They will react by sending these people back and possibly closing their borders," said Schweiger. "They will be criticized about this by the rest of the European Union. But I think they have a point when they say, 'Well, you have no right no criticize us if you do not assist us in this difficult task.'"
The European Commission had criticized Malta for not accepting the North Africans who arrived off the country's coast on Sunday.
The EC said Malta had a duty to admit the passengers on humanitarian grounds.