LONDON — A group of 49 migrants stranded at sea after being refused entry to any European port in late December, in a case seen as emblematic of the region’s increasingly hard-line approach to immigration, was finally allowed to land in Malta on Wednesday.
The asylum seekers, who had been sheltering aboard two private rescue boats, will be shared among nine member states of the European Union, the Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat, said in a statement. A further 224 people who had been brought to Malta by the Maltese Coast Guard will also be distributed across the nine nations.
The announcement brought to an end a 19-day wait for 32 of the stranded migrants, who were rescued from a faulty rubber dinghy off Libya on Dec. 22 by the Sea-Watch 3, a ship owned by the private German rescue organization Sea Watch. The 17 others were picked up a week later by another German group, Sea Eye.
For more than a week the ships were refused entry at Mediterranean ports and even, until early January, permission to cross Europe’s maritime border. During that time, storms brewed and many migrants grew increasingly seasick.
Analysts said the situation was the natural denouement of a hardening European migration policy since the 2015 refugee crisis, when over a million people landed by sea in Italy and Greece.
While several European nations extended a warm welcome at that time, the Continent soon tried to deter new arrivals by paying the Turkish government to stop migration to Greece, and Libyan militias to block the route to Italy.
These policies helped reduce irregular maritime migration by 90 percent. But they did little to prevent the rise of right-wing populists — particularly in Italy, where the far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, rode into government on a wave of anti-migrant sentiment.
While Italy has organized rescues of refugees in the waters between its coast and Libya for years, and it has allowed around 650,000 rescued migrants to land on its soil since 2014, Mr. Salvini ordered the Coast Guard to abandon that role in June, and to refuse entry to private rescue boats.
The authorities in neighboring Malta, a group of islands south of Sicily, took a similar approach. They have refused to let private rescue boats dock at their ports unless other European countries agree to share responsibility not just for those saved by the private missions but also for migrants already rescued by the Maltese Coast Guard.
And for the past three weeks, as European politicians wrangled in private about who would take care of whom, the 49 migrants were left to wait, often in difficult weather conditions. Aboard the Sea-Watch 3, the passengers waited out storms in cramped accommodation designed for only eight people, and many of them vomited regularly from seasickness.
Many of the migrants found the situation particularly traumatizing because they had only just escaped torture and slavery in Libya.
“If Europe people came here and spent 20 days on this ship, most of them would kill themselves,” Achwil Abdallah, a 15-year-old from South Sudan, said in an interview this week. He said he had been beaten by members of the Libyan Coast Guard and had received an electric shock after being captured during earlier failed attempts to reach Europe.
“There are some people who never really sleep,” said Antonia Dagorova, a doctor aboard the Sea-Watch 3. “They’re having flashbacks and it’s like another trauma for them.”
On Wednesday afternoon, their trauma finally ebbed when Malta announced that France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania and the Netherlands agreed to share responsibility for the 49, and the Maltese Navy soon arrived to take them to shore.
But it was unclear whether Italy had actually agreed to participate, after Mr. Salvini subsequently said on social media he would refuse to authorize Italy’s involvement.
And the wording of Mr. Muscat’s statement suggested these may not be the last migrants to experience such a stressful wait.
“I reiterate, as I did before, that this case shall not act as a precedent,” he said.
Orignially published in NYT.