Valletta: Malta's Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, on Sunday said his country will take in 19 refugees rescued after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean overnight.

Seventeen refugees had initially been rescued by Malta's armed forces in the country's search and rescue area, but a pregnant woman and child were then saved after survivors said they were missing.

"We have found them, and they are all alive," Muscat told journalists, adding that he had given instructions for the group to be brought to Malta.

However, Malta is still refusing to take in 40 refugees who have been stranded for a week after being rescued by a commercial ship within the country's search and rescue area.

On Thursday the government strongly rejected reports that Malta broke international rules by directing the refugees to disembark in Tunisia.

"The applicable conventions stipulate that disembarkation should take place at the nearest place of safety. Tunisia was the nearest place of safety," the government said in a statement.

Tunisia has also refused to take in the 40 refugees, who are now stranded off the Tunisian port of Zarzis on the ship that rescued them, as letting them land would set a precedent.

In recent years Malta has typically only accepted rescued refugees on its shores if they were saved in the country's territorial waters or in cases of medical emergencies.

Europe has been rocked by a burgeoning crisis over what to do with the influx of people fleeing conflict and persecution across the Mediterranean after Italy's new populist government started turning away rescue ships.

Italy has since tried to push Malta to accept more refugees, but the authorities in capital, Valletta, have often turned them down, saying that the operations took place closer to the shores of Tunisia or Italy's own islands.

Pope Francis waded into the fractious debate on Sunday, calling on the international community to act "decisively and quickly" to prevent further shipwrecks tragedies in Mediterranean.

"In recent weeks there have been dramatic reports of shipwrecks of boats loaded with migrants," he said, adding that the "safety, respect of rights and the dignity of all must be guaranteed".