August 23, 2019 / 1:10 PM / 3 months ago

Europe brokers deal to end Ocean Viking migrant standoff

MILAN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Six EU countries have agreed to take in 356 migrants stranded at sea for two weeks aboard the Ocean Viking rescue vessel, ending the latest standoff over migration to Europe across the Mediterranean.

Rescued migrants rest aboard the Ocean Viking ship at the Mediterranean Sea, August 21, 2019 in this still image taken from a social media video. MSF via REUTERS

The migrants aboard the ship, which is run by French charities, will be taken to Malta before being relocated to France, Germany, Romania, Luxembourg, Portugal and Ireland, the EU migration commissioner and Maltese prime minister said on Twitter.

“Welcome that a solution for the persons aboard Ocean Viking has been found and that all will be relocated,” EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said, praising Malta for overseeing the arrangement.

The plight of the Ocean Viking, run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and another French charity, SOS Méditerranée, has exposed Europe’s failure to come up with a coherent policy to deal with migration from Africa through Libya.

On Tuesday, around a hundred migrants stranded for weeks on board another rescue ship, the Open Arms, disembarked on the Italian island of Lampedusa after an Italian prosecutor ordered the ship’s seizure and evacuation. Spain, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal agreed to take them in.

Providing sanctuary to migrants and refugees is currently left to the goodwill of member states who come forward as the emergencies unfold.

“European governments need to bring to a definitive end prolonged standoffs and petty case-by-case negotiations to come up immediately with a predetermined disembarking mechanism, MSF said.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Twitter the migrants on Ocean Viking would be picked up in international waters and then transferred onshore by Maltese military boats.

France said it would take in 150 of the migrants, after initially committing to sheltering only 40. Portugal said late on Thursday it was ready to take up to 35 migrants.

The ship, which had been stranded in international waters between Malta and the southern Italian island of Linosa, had been denied entry by Malta while requests to Italy had gone unanswered, the charities previously said.

Italy has banned the docking of private rescue ships operating close to its shores. Matteo Salvini, the far-right interior minister, has called them taxis for people-smugglers, saying Italy should not be “Europe’s refugee camp”.

“I am working at the ministry to defend the borders and stop the Ocean Viking ship - French NGO and Norwegian-flagged - from entering Italian waters,” Salvini said on Facebook on Friday.

The Ocean Viking ship was carrying mostly Africans from Sudan, plucked from the sea in four separate missions. They include more than 100 minors, around 90 of them unaccompanied, and three children are under the age of five, MSF said.

Reporting by Stephen Jewkes and Pamela Barbaglia in Milan, Gabriela Baczynska, Inti Landauro, Editing by William Maclean and Ros Russell

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