Spain will allow rescue ship with 600 migrants to dock after Italy, Malta refuse

Spain has offered to take in a rescue ship carrying more than 600 migrants after Italy and Malta refused — a diplomatic standoff that left the migrants stranded in the Mediterranean Sea and revealed the brass-knuckled negotiating tactics of Italy's new anti-immigrant government.

Incident marks the 1st manifestation of views expressed by Italy's League, now in government

Stranded migrant ship in Mediterranean Sea given sanctuary in Spain


3 years agoVideo
629 refugees seeking asylum granted docking priviliges in Valencia 0:57

Spain stepped up Monday and offered to take in a rescue ship carrying more than 600 migrants after Italy and Malta refused — a diplomatic standoff that left the migrants stranded in the Mediterranean Sea and revealed the brass-knuckled negotiating tactics of Italy's new anti-immigrant government.

Italy and Malta quickly thanked Spain's new Socialist prime minister for the offer to receive aid group SOS Mediterranee's ship at the port of Valencia. But it wasn't certain if the voyage was feasible given the distance and how long the rescue vessel had been at sea.

The Aquarius on Monday was more than 1,400 kilometres from Valencia and said it had received no instructions yet to head to Spain.

"It means that we need at least two more days of sailing, which is not possible today with 629 people on board," SOS Mediterranee Maritime Operations Manager Antoine Laurent said.

Migrants prepare to board the Aquarius ship in the Mediterranean Sea, in an image released Monday. (Kenny Karpox/SOS Mediterranee/Associated Press)

The UN refugee agency, the European Union, Germany and humanitarian groups had all demanded that the Mediterranean countries put their domestic politics aside and urgently consider the plight of the 629 migrants, among them more than 100 children, pregnant women and people suffering from hypothermia.

"The duty of a democratic government is not to look away" in a humanitarian crisis, said Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, who also offered her port as a potential solution to the standoff.

Migrants on April 23 watch the Sicilian coast from the Aquarius vessel as they arrive in Trapani, Italy. Italy has called on Libya and the European Union in help stem the flow of arrivals that have arisen after a Balkan route was closed off. (Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE)

Doctors Without Borders, which has staff aboard the Aquarius, said the rescued migrants were stable for now but that food and water on the ship would run out by Monday night. It said some of the passengers were suffering from water in their lungs as well as chemical burns caused when gasoline mixes with seawater. Seven are pregnant.

"The team is still a bit calm and we know the situation is stable but it cannot run" forever, SOS Mediterranee's Laurent said.

Despite the diplomatic pressure, Italy and Malta held firm, with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini clearly using the high seas drama as a pretext to force the hand of Italy's European neighbours. Italy has long demanded that the EU change its migration policy and make good on promises to accept more refugees, saying that Italy has been left alone to co-ordinate rescues and accept tens of thousands of migrants a year for asylum processing.

"Enough!" said Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. "Saving lives is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn't."

He tweeted: #Chiudiamoiporti. "We're closing the ports."

Satisfied with Spain's offer, Salvini later told reporters the standoff with Malta was "an important first signal" that Italy would no longer tolerate being left alone to accept and process would-be refugees. He vowed to also cut the funding Italy provides migrants as they wait to be processed.

"Apparently raising your voice pays off," he said.

Members of the SOS Mediterranee NGO and crew of the Aquarius vessel participate in a training exercise on the first day of a patrolling mission on April 10. The Aquarius remains in the Mediterranean after Malta and Italy refused to allow the ship to enter either country's ports. (Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE)

The migrants had been rescued from flimsy smugglers' boats in the Mediterranean during a series of operations Saturday by Italian naval ships, cargo vessels and the Aquarius itself. All passengers were offloaded to the Aquarius to be taken to land.

Italy argued that Malta should accept the Aquarius because Malta was the safest, closest port to the ship. Malta said Italy co-ordinated the rescues and that the tiny island nation — which in the last few years has only accepted a few hundred migrants — has had nothing to do with it.

Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat also refused to take in the Aquarius ship. He accused Italy, which co-ordinated the rescue, of violating international norms governing sea rescues.

'Dangerous situation'

Italy's position, Muscat said, risks "creating a dangerous situation for all those involved."

Spain's new Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, ordered authorities in Valencia to open the port, saying "it's our duty to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a secure port for these people."

But it wasn't clear if the offer would be taken up given that the trip would expose the migrants to several days more on the sea.

Laurent, of SOS Mediterranee, acknowledged Spain's offer of solidarity but said it wasn't up to the Rome-based rescue co-ordinationcentre run by the Italian coast guard. And he said the logistics and time counted against setting a course for Spain.

"We would need a resupply at sea which is not so easy to organize so we urge Italy to find a solution very soon close to our position," he told The Associated Press in Paris.

Still, both Muscat and new Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte readily thanked Spain for the offer, with Conte saying "it goes in the direction of solidarity."

As the rhetoric intensified, the Aquarius remained on standby in the Mediterranean Sea with its 629 passengers, including 123 unaccompanied minors. The ship said it had been ordered by Italy's coast guard late Sunday to remain 56 kilometres off Italy and 43 kilometres from Malta, and there it remained Monday.

A doctor on the ship, Dr. David Beversluis, said there were no medical emergencies onboard but one passenger had to be revived after he was rescued.

"When the boat broke, a man sank in front of the eyes of the rescuers, who managed to catch him and revive him once out of the water. He is now out of danger," Beversluis said. "All the survivors are exhausted and dehydrated because they spent many hours adrift in these boats."

Almost a quarter of the migrant survivors hail from Sudan, the group said.

Migrants unaware of political incident brewing

Doctors Without Borders, which has staff aboard the Aquarius, tweeted a video of some of the women aboard the ship praying Monday morning and said they were unaware of the diplomatic drama being waged on land over their fate.

"Thank you Lord," the women sang. The group said it "urgently requests a swift resolution and a designated port of safety."

The standoff marked the first inevitable clash over migrant rescues with League leader Salvini, now running Italy's Interior Ministry. Salvini campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform that also included a vow to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants already in Italy, even though experts doubt such mass deportations are feasible or financially viable.

Malta, for its part, has consistently refused to take in migrants, citing its small size and limited capacities. The island nation of some 415,000 people has progressively reduced the number of migrants it has taken in over the past decade, from a high of 2,775 in 2008 to just 23 last year, according to UN statistics.

Salvini pointed to Malta's unwillingness in accusing Europe as a whole of leaving Italy on its own to deal with the refugee crisis. He noted that other European countries are very much involved in current rescue operations in the Mediterranean — including a German aid group currently off Libya — but no country is stepping up to actually take in the migrants.

"Italy has stopped bowing our heads and obeying," Salvini said in a Facebook post. "This time we say no."

The standoff is actually the third in recent weeks, after the outgoing government of Premier Paolo Gentiloni refused to let humanitarian aid groups dock in Italian ports until the ships' flag nations had formally requested permission. Those incidents delayed the migrants' arrival, but they ultimately made it to Italy.