Ocean Viking migrant rescue ship disembarks in Malta, demands long-term solution

The Ocean Viking was operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders.

A ship carrying more than 350 migrants was allowed to port and disembark at Malta Friday after a two-week international impasse, that latest in a series of standoffs this summer as European nations close up their borders.

The Ocean Viking, a Norwegian-flagged ship jointly operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), was granted port in Malta only after six other nations -- France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Romania -- agreed to take in the migrants.

Maltan Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Twitter the 356 migrants were allowed entry after discussions with the European Commission and member states, "namely" France and Germany.

The ship had been sailing between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa, south of Sicily, since Aug. 9, according to The Associated Press, as it awaited permission to dock, a situation SOS Mediterranee called "dreadful."

"Was it necessary to impose two weeks of excruciating wait for rescued people to be disembarked? These are people who have fled from desperate circumstances in their home countries and suffered horrific abuses in Libya," Jay Berger, the MSF project coordinator aboard the Ocean Viking said in a statement Friday.

The migrant crossing in the Central Mediterranean has become extremely tense -- and deadly -- since far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini took office last summer in Italy, instituting harsh anti-migration policies, including shutting ports down to private rescue ships. Earlier this summer, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called on Italy to change its policies to prevent further death and unrest in the sea, but Salvini has been unrelenting.

"Like promised, we did not give permission for the 356 immigrants on board the Ocean Viking to disembark," Salvini wrote in the caption of a Facebook livestream Friday. "The security of the Italians first!"

In their Friday statement, MSF called on European nations to take four measures, including putting "in place a sustainable and predictable disembarkation system that safeguards survivor’s rights" and stopping "punitive actions against NGOs trying to provide lifesaving assistance in lieu of a government-led response to this crisis."

Several rescue ships have been seized and crews face possible charges in Italy, including captain Pia Klemp of the "Iuventa 10," who face investigation, and captain Carola Rackete of Sea-Watch, who was arrested in Italy this June after docking in Lampedusa without authorization.

MSF also called on European nations to "end their political and material support to the system of forced returns to Libya where refugees and migrants are placed in arbitrary and inhumane detention." Italy had made a deal in 2017 with Libya to stop migrants from attempting to cross the Mediterranean from the African nation.

In July, 44 people were killed by an airstrike on a detention center for migrants in Libya. The attack was blamed on forces associated with the Libyan National Army, according to The Associated Press.

At least 576 people have died so far this year trying to cross the sea on the Central Mediterranean route to Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration's latest report through Aug. 4.

MSF said in a Tuesday tweet it believes "over 100 lives were lost" when a boat filled with migrants sank off the coast of Libya this week.

Libyan officials have not confirmed the number of deaths, according to Reuters.