Wednesday 12 December 2018

Spain opens ports to refugees shut out by Italy and Malta

SOS Mediterranée’s Aquarius has been one the vessels at the heart of the mission to rescue refugees. Photo: Reuters
SOS Mediterranée’s Aquarius has been one the vessels at the heart of the mission to rescue refugees. Photo: Reuters

Nicole Winfield and Aritz Parra in Rome

Spain offered yesterday to take in a rescue ship carrying more than 600 migrants after Italy and Malta refused.

The diplomatic stand-off had left the migrants stranded at sea and revealed the hard negotiating tactics of Italy's new anti-immigrant government.

Italy and Malta immediately thanked Spain's new Socialist prime minister for the offer to receive the SOS Mediterranée rescue ship Aquarius at the port of Valencia.

But it wasn't immediately clear if such a voyage was feasible given the distances involved - the ship is now more than 1,400km (more than 750 nautical miles) from Valencia.

The Aquarius said it had received no instructions yet to head to Spain.

The UN refugee agency, the European Union, Germany and humanitarian groups had all demanded the Mediterranean countries put their domestic politics aside and urgently consider the plight of the rescued migrants, which included 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.

Médecins Sans Frontières, which has staff aboard the Aquarius, said the rescued migrants were stable for now but food and water on the ship would run out by last night.

Some refugees were suffering from water in their lungs as well as chemical burns caused when gasoline mixes with seawater. Seven are pregnant.

But Italy and Malta held firm despite heavy diplomatic pressure, with Italy's new 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 the EU change its migration policy and make good on promises to accept more refugees, saying Italy has been left alone to coordinate rescues and accept tens of thousands of migrants a year for asylum processing.

"Enough!" Mr Salvini said yesterday. "Saving lives is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn't."

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

The migrants had been rescued from flimsy smugglers' boats by Italian maritime ships, cargo vessels and the Aquarius. All passengers were offloaded to the Aquarius to be taken to land.

Italy claimed Malta should accept the Aquarius because it had the safest, closest port to the ship. Malta said Italy co-ordinated the rescues and that it has had nothing to do with it.

Maltese premier Joseph Muscat accused Italy of violating international norms governing sea rescues and said its stance risked "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 the trip would expose the migrants to several days more on the sea.

Irish Independent

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