Wednesday 12 December 2018

Spain offers to take in migrant ship amid Italy-Malta stand-off

More than 600 people are stranded on board the rescue ship Aquarius amid a diplomatic impasse.

Interior minister Matteo Salvini has taken a hard line on migrants in Italy (AP)
Interior minister Matteo Salvini has taken a hard line on migrants in Italy (AP)

By Nicole Winfield and Aritz Parra

Spain has offered 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 tough negotiating tactics of Italy’s new anti-immigrant government.

Italy and Malta thanked Spain’s new socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez for the offer to receive the SOS Mediterranee rescue ship Aquarius at the port of Valencia.

It is not immediately clear if such a voyage was feasible given the distances involved, as the ship is now 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 that 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.

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau also offered her port as a potential solution to the stand-off, saying: “The duty of a democratic government is not to look away” in a humanitarian crisis.

Doctors Without Borders, which has staff aboard the Aquarius, said the rescued migrants are 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.

Italy and Malta held firm despite the 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 that the EU change its migration policy and makes 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!” Mr Salvini said. “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 in the Mediterranean during a series of operations on Saturday by Italian maritime ships, cargo vessels and the Aquarius itself. All passengers were offloaded to the Aquarius to be taken to land.

Italy claimed 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 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”.

Food is expected to run out on board the boat shortly (AP)

In Spain, Mr 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 was not clear if the offer would be taken up given that the trip would expose the migrants to several more days at sea.

Both Mr Muscat and new Italian premier Giuseppe Conte readily thanked Spain for the offer, with Mr 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.

Press Association

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