The ongoing dispute over migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Europe has quieted down a bit of late. That was largely due to new arrangements made with the EU calling for most of them to be returned to Libya or other spots on the coast rather than allowing them to be offloaded in Italy. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped trying. Another boatload of these migrants was rescued by a Turkish oil tanker earlier today, but the story took a dark turn when a group of the rescued “victims” proceeded to hijack the vessel and attempt to force them to sail to Europe. (Associated Press)

A Maltese special operations team on Thursday boarded a tanker that had been hijacked by migrants rescued at sea, and returned control to the captain before escorting it to a Maltese port.

Armed military personnel stood guard on the ship’s deck, and a dozen or so migrants were also visible, as the Turkish oil tanker El Hiblu 1 docked at Boiler Wharf in the city of Senglea. Several police vans were lined up on shore to take custody of the migrants for investigation, and four migrants were led off the ship in handcuffs.

Authorities in Italy and Malta on Wednesday said that the group had hijacked the vessel after it rescued them in the Mediterranean Sea, and forced the crew to put the Libya-bound vessel on a course north toward Europe.

The crew of the tanker, El Hiblu 1, was overwhelmed by militant “victims” and forced to change course. They had been heading for Libya originally, which would have made it convenient for them to drop the migrants off at a safe harbor, but their new guests obviously had other ideas. Thankfully, the crew was able to get a distress message out and the Maltese military responded. They returned control of the ship to the crew and escorted them to a port in Malta where the pirates could be placed under arrest.

In some ways, it seems kind of surprising that this is the first act of piracy carried out by these hordes of migrants to date. Cargo ships tend to have very small crews compared to military vessels and they don’t tend to be very heavily armed. If they pick up a large number of people from a floundering vessel and even a few of them have weapons, it probably wouldn’t be that difficult of a trick to pull off.

What this says about the future of mass migration into Europe is unknown, but it definitely feels like there was just a change in the atmosphere. Malta and Italy have been in a tug-of-war over these questions for a couple of years now. The Italians were taking in the lion’s share of all migrants found adrift on the sea, but they grew increasingly resentful over it. Malta had just been refusing to accept any of them, causing a rift with Italy. And after Italy changed their policies to forbid unbridled dumping of migrants on their shores, we seemed to be in a stalemate.

We can hope that this was simply a one-off event, and perhaps it was. But if hijacking your rescuers becomes the hot new trend among these migrants, more forceful measures will be required to keep the seas safe. For starters, owners of these civilian cargo ships will probably need to look at additional armed security for their crews and begin being a bit more judicious about who they “rescue.”