Malta reluctantly allowed 425 migrants held offshore for more than a month to disembark on Sunday after a group of them threatened to kidnap the crew of one of the chartered boats where they were being held, authorities said.
Prime Minister Robert Abela said the government had been forced to act after the crew of one of the boats called him directly for help. “They gave us half an hour to act or they would kidnap the crew,” he said in a televised interview cited by Reuters.
He said authorities decided against boarding the vessel by force and subduing the migrants after the military warned of the risk of injury to migrants and service personnel.
State broadcaster TVM said migrants took over parts of the vessel, leaving the crew and security officers holed up on the bridge. The vessel was later escorted to Valletta harbour by two army patrol boats.
Malta’s government started putting rescued migrants on chartered tourist boats at the end of April, after insisting that Malta’s harbors were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It also said the island’s reception centers were full and complained that European Union member states had not kept earlier promises to take migrants from Malta.
Renewed tensions in Libya, where Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s internationally recognized government has been battling forces of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, have reawakened concerns in Europe about a new wave of migrant arrivals as the coronavirus lockdown eases.
In the late hours of Saturday and early Sunday, the boats docked at Boiler Wharf in Senglea and the migrants disembarked. It was not immediately clear where they were taken, AFP said.
Malta had come under fire from humanitarian groups for holding the migrants on the tourist boats, which are not designed for lengthy stays.
One group, crisis hotline Alarm Phone, wrote on Facebook last month that a migrant aboard one of the boats had said that some had attempted suicide, some were on hunger strike, and that there was an outbreak of skin diseases.
Malta said negotiations were ongoing over relocations to other European countries, while repatriations would come “within days” in cases where asylum requests were rejected.
Last week, Malta and Libya’s unity government signed a memorandum of understanding to open migrant coordination centers in Tripoli and Valletta, paid for by Malta.