Even in death, migrants were let down by Europe

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The bodies of 21 would-be migrants picked up from the Mediterranean by a French frigate 120 miles south of Malta were left to rot on board the ship while Maltese, French and Libyan authorities argued for hours over where the bodies would be taken for burial.

The corpses, initially suspected to have come from a boat crammed with Eritreans that was photographed by a Maltese surveillance plane 10 days ago before disappearing without trace, were already in an advanced state of decomposition when La Motte Picquet plucked them from the sea in the Gulf of Sirte. "They had clearly been in the sea for several days," said Emmanuel Dinh, a spokesman for the French Maritime Authority.

But the Maltese, whose tough attitude towards seaborne immigrants has thrust them into the headlines repeatedly in the past fortnight, said it was nothing to do with them. Because the boat sank in Libyan waters, the government said, the responsibility was Libya's and they would only change their attitude if the Libyans refused to help. After hours of fruitless discussion between the three sides, the issue was resolved by the French, who sailed for France with their tragic cargo.

It is at least the fourth time in two weeks that the Maltese have refused to do anything for the migrants, whether alive or dead.

When the boat crammed with 53 Eritreans was photographed by a Maltese monitoring plane, it was only 80 miles south of the island, perhaps three hours' sailing time for the sort of fast offshore patrol vessels Malta can deploy. When the patrol boat turned up nearly nine hours later, there was no trace of the Eritreans. Days later, the Maltese refused to accept 27 Africans who spent three days and nights clinging to the walkway around a tuna pen at sea. They were finally rescued by the Italians. Another 26 migrants rescued by a Spanish boat were taken to Spain when Malta adamantly refused to accept them.

The Maltese policy was fiercely criticised yesterday by Franco Frattini, vice-president of the European Commission with responsibility for immigration. Malta's refusal to accept the bodies was, he said "difficult to understand, and must not be repeated".

Malta's concerns about immigration were shared, he said, "but solidarity is not just a matter of taking, one must also give. And the only thing to be done when people are in the sea is to save human life." He said that Malta's behaviour would be the subject of sharp questions at the next conference of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg on 11 June. "No country has ever violated the accepted practice of saving life at sea in such an overt manner," he said.

Meanwhile a representative of the Eritrean Liberation Front claimed that the 53 Eritreans photographed from the air were in fact carried back to the coast of Libya by currents - where they were immediately detained by the Libyan authorities. Tesfay Teklezgh, speaking to the Malta Independent on Sunday, said that he had spoken both to the Eritreans and the Libyan prison authorities. He added that it was certain that they would be repatriated to Eritrea, where "their lives will be at great risk". He said: "There is no peace, democracy or respect for basic human rights in Eritrea today. There are only guns and terror against its own people. The world must address these basic issues, then issues of migration and asylum could also be solved."