Migrants onboard an inflatible boat wait for being rescued off the coast of Libya earlier this month

Valletta (AFP) - Malta on Monday pulled 180 migrants to safety from two boats in distress, while 49 more were stuck in limbo at sea as the weather worsened in the Mediterranean.

The Maltese military said a patrol boat picked up 28 migrants from a dinghy some 71 nautical miles (130 kilometres) southwest of Malta before plucking another 152 people from a wooden boat to the south.

The rescues followed the recovery by Malta Sunday of 69 migrants on a wooden boat which had run into trouble.

Meanwhile, the UN’s refugee agency said time was “of the essence” for 49 people rescued by NGO boats but denied a safe port in Europe, some of whom have been stranded at sea for over a week.

The NGOs – the German Sea-Eye and Dutch Sea-Watch – called for “an immediate solution for those being held hostage by European States, who are denying them a safe port”.

“With the weather conditions forecast to worsen this evening, a solution must be found by the end of 2018 in order to prevent placing people’s heath at further risk,” they said in a joint statement.

The German-flagged Professor Albrecht Penck ship has 17 migrants from West Africa on board who were rescued on Saturday in international waters off Libya.

At the same time, the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3 has 32 migrants rescued on December 22 including three young children, three unaccompanied adolescents and four women from Nigeria, Libya and Ivory Coast.

“Europe (500 million inhabitants) at war against migrants (49, including 7 children). Who will win?” Luigi Manconi, president of the human rights commission in the Italian senate, said on Twitter.

While Italy, Malta, Spain and the Netherlands have refused to accept the Sea-Watch 3 migrants, several German cities have offered to take them in.

- Who will take migrants? -

On Saturday a government spokesman said Germany would only accept some of the migrants if other European countries also agreed to do so.

Last week, a newborn baby and his mother were helicoptered from a boat to Malta.

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, stressed that “decisive leadership is required, in line with fundamental values of humanity and compassion, to offer safe disembarkation and bring the 49 safely to land.

“Negotiations on which states will subsequently receive them must come only after they are safely ashore,” he added.

More than 1,300 migrants have died trying to reach Italy or Malta via the central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The Italian interior ministry said Monday that the number of 2018 arrivals in Italy was down over 80 percent compared with 2017 at just 23,370.

The biggest number came from Tunisia, followed by Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

In mid-2017, departures from Libya dropped after a controversial deal between Italy and the war-torn North African country.

A campaign against the NGO rescue organisations peaked in June this year with far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini’s “closed-ports” policy aimed at ending all rescue operations, including military ones.