Malta has agreed to let 356 migrants aboard a humanitarian ship in the Mediterranean Sea, to disembark after six European countries agreed to accept them all.
In a series of tweets, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the group would be taken from the Ocean Viking to vessels of the country’s armed forces before they were able to leave.
The boat has been drifting in international waters between Malta and the southern Italian island of Linosa for about two weeks.
Requests for a safe port were previously denied by Malta and ignored by Italy, according to Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, the two French charities running the ship.
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”.
In a Facebook post on Friday, he said: “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”.
The vessel, which has a passenger capacity of around 200 people, picked up the group, mostly Africans from Sudan, in four rescue efforts off Libya from 9 to 12 August.
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) August 23, 2019
They include more than 100 children, around 90 of them unaccompanied, and three children are under the age of five, according to Doctors Without Borders.
France said it would take in 150 migrants after initially committing to accepting 40.
Portugal said it was ready to take up to 35 migrants, with Germany, Romania, Luxembourg and Ireland also offering to accept them.
The EU has welcomed the move and says its border and asylum agencies will help screen people before they are relocated.
Migration commissioner Dmitris Avramopoulos said in a statement on Friday that “these commitments must now be honoured and materialized swiftly”.