Relations between Malta and Italy are at an all time low as the new far-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini has upped the ante on the migration and warned that Malta cannot keep refusing to rescue people at sea.
Both countries have enjoyed a close relationship for decades and a tacit deal between Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and previous centre-left Italian government has seen the number of asylum seekers reaching Malta drastically reduced.
The latest diplomatic incident between the countries has seen the captain of rescue ship, the Seefuchs, providing Italian authorities recordings and emails which show that Maltese authorities refused permission to the ship to enter Malta.
As tensions between Rome and Valletta rise, Italian newspaper Il Giornale – owned by former Italian premier and Salvini ally Silvio Berlusconi – reported how the captain of the rescue ship told Italian authorities that Malta “did not let us in port” after rescuing 121 people this week.
The newspaper said that this infuriated Italian far-right home affairs minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini who warned Malta that “the music is changing.”
The Seefuchs captain Klaus Stadler provided the evidence to the Italian coast guard which show that the Maltese authorities repeatedly refused his ship entry into Malta despite the deteriorating weather conditions.
According to Il Giornale, the Maltese authorities informed the rescue ship that “we are only available for medical evacuations” at sea.
On Friday, Salvini said “When Dutch, Spanish, English and German rescue ships which roam the Mediterranean get close to Malta they are told ‘bye bye’ and refused entry.”
In a Facebook live broadcast Salvini added that the rescued people are then taken to Italy but warned that “if they (Malta) think they can get away with this as they have done so far they should be aware that the minister and government have changed. I will not stand aside and look.”
Salvini’s Maltese counterpart Michael Farrugia has denied that Malta refused to offer assistance and instead that “Malta adheres to all its obligations at all times.”
Since 2013, the number of boat arrivals in Malta has dwindled significantly. In 2013, some 2,008 asylum seekers reached Malta by boat.
However a tacit agreement between Maltese Prime Minister Jospeh Muscat and the former Italian premier Matteo Renzi has seen Italy take in most of the migrants reaching Europe by boat from Libya.
In 2014, Malta took in 568 asylum-seekers who arrived by sea and the numbers tumbled further to 104 in 2015, 25 in 2016 and 23 in 2017.
After seeing some 181,000 asylum-seekers reach Italy by boat in 2016, the number of arrivals plummeted over the past year, after the outgoing Italian government signed a controversial deal with Libya to stop departures from the war-torn North African nation.