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Pope urges EU to take in 49 migrants stranded off Malta

'In Italy, no more people are arriving,' far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini tells newspaper
Rescued migants on board Dutch-flagged rescue vessel Sea Watch on Saturday (AFP)

Pope Francis urged European leaders on Sunday to stop bickering over the fate of 49 migrants stuck aboard two humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea and let them land at a safe port of call.

With his comments in an address to 60,000 people in Saint Peter's Square for the feast of the Epiphany, Francis jumped into a diplomatic fracas between Italy and Malta and into an internal dispute among leaders of Italy's populist government, Reuters reported.

"I make a heartfelt appeal to European leaders to show concrete solidarity for these people," Francis said, raising his voice. They are only "seeking a safe port where they can disembark," he said.

The EU also urged member states to admit them as concern grows over their plight, with some of the migrants stranded at sea for more than two weeks, AFP said. Humanitarian groups including Amnesty International and the United Nations' International Organization for Migration have called on the EU to offer a safe port to both vessels.

The Netherlands and Germany have offered to take some of the migrants if their EU partners do the same, but the bloc's long-running deadlock over sharing responsibility for migrants has yet to be resolved.

And there was no sign of Italy changing its policy.

"In Italy, no more people are arriving," far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told the Sunday paper Il Messaggero. "That's the line and it will not change."

And he rammed the message home on Twitter, saying "Italy's ports are and will stay closed".

While not quite as categorical, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Sunday he feared setting a "precedent".

There are 17 people on board the German NGO vessel Sea-Eye, with another 32 on the Sea-Watch. Among them are a one-year-old baby and two children aged six and seven.

Some onboard Sea Watch are being treated for dehydration caused by seasickness.

They are "all crammed into a small room and literally vomit on each other", said Sea Watch spokeswoman Giorgia Linardi, who fears some of the passengers will self-harm.

"The situation is becoming more unstable every day, the level of stress is rising," added Franck Doerner, a doctor on board, via a video message.

If the small Mediterranean island state of Malta, which has a population of 450,000, allowed in migrants from the two rescue ships, "the bullies would have won," said the Maltese leader.

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"This is an issue that might set a precedent and we should be vigilant about it," Muscat told Malta's Radio One station.

"It is easy to play the Christmas Saint with everyone, but then come January, February and the summer period we would be told to do the same."

Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the 5-Star Movement, shot back at Muscat, saying Italy had for years taken migrants who arrived via the Mediterranean. "Now, Malta has to do its part. That is our position," he said.

Relations between Italy and Malta have been strained since Salvini's decision to close Italian ports to the migrants, accusing the rights groups who rescue them of running a migrant "taxi service".

Salvini has called on Malta to assume its responsibilities and take in the rescue boats, arguing they are the closest.

Salvini has often criticised Francis, who has made the defence of migrants a key feature of his pontificate.

Italy and Malta are predominantly Catholic nations, but the church's influence in politics has waned significantly in recent years.

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