Spain breaks deadlock after rescued migrants cut adrift

Italy’s new anti-immigrant government had refused to allow rescue ship to land with 629 people aboard

Migrants are rescued by staff members of the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres in the central Mediterranean Sea, June 10, 2018. Picture taken June 10, 2018. Karpov/handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
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Spain has intervened to end a diplomatic stand-off over the fate of more than 600 migrants abandoned in the Mediterranean Sea after their rescue ship was barred from docking in Italy.

Prime minister Pedro Sanchez said the Aquarius could land at the eastern port of Valencia after the new anti-immigration government of Italy closed its ports to rescued migrants.

The UN had urged governments to resolve the issue for the sake of the seven pregnant women, hundreds of children and 15 seriously injured among the 629 people on the ship. The vessel was left in a holding position in the Mediterranean after Malta also refused an Italian request to take the migrants.

"The Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has given instructions for Spain to comply with its international commitments in matters of humanitarian crises and has announced that a Spanish port will welcome the Aquarius, in which 600 people have been abandoned to their fate in the Mediterranean," according to a statement from the premier's office.

Spain’s new foreign minister, Josep Borrell, said the gesture was also intended to underline the need for solidarity from the entire bloc.

“Italy has received an enormous influx of migrants and so far other European countries haven’t shown much solidarity,” Mr Borrell told a news briefing in Madrid.

There was, he said, a “need for Europeans ... to face up, in a united and co-ordinated manner, to a problem that is a problem for all, and not just for Greece one year and for Italy the next”.

SOS Mediterranee director general Sophie Beau said Spain’s offer “is encouraging and shows that some states are sensitive to the humanitarian emergency”.

She warned that the Aquarius will have to travel about 1,300 kilometres to reach the Spanish coast, which could take at least four days, and that by Tuesday "there will be no more food [on board] apart from energy biscuits".

"The Aquarius has just received a resupply of 950 bottles of water, 800 packs of noodles and snacks from a vessel of the Maltese navy," the SOS Mediterranee tweeted on Monday.

“Food distribution ongoing on board the Aquarius. Despite the resupply this afternoon, food stock will only allow for one more meal tomorrow.”

Some of the migrants were picked up from the water after a rubber boat carrying them from the North African coast broke up, according to maritime rescue charity SOS Mediterranee which runs the Aquarius rescue ship with Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat offered to re-supply the Aquarius for the 1,200-kilometre journey. “We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue,” he tweeted.

The vessel headed north from the coast of Africa on Sunday after collecting the migrants from six rescue operations but was unable to head to any port because of the diplomatic spat.

Italy’s coastguard co-ordination centre ordered the ship to remain 55 kilometres off Italy and 40 from Malta. Journalists on board the ship on Monday said it had yet to set off for Spain.

“Fundamentally, the principle of rescue at sea must not be put into doubt through incidents like this,” Vincent Cochetel, the UN refugee agency’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean, said in a statement.

The stand-off followed Italian electoral success for the populist anti-migration League, headed by Matteo Salvini, who has been named interior minister in a new coalition government.

In a series of tweets, Mr Salvini declared “Close the ports”.

“From today also Italy begins to say no to the trafficking of human beings, no to the business of illegal immigration,” he wrote. “My goal is to ensure a serene life for these kids in Africa and our children in Italy.”

Mr Salvini also identified a German rescue ship, Sea-Watch 2, which is in the Mediterranean north of Tripoli. The Sea-Watch organisation said it had taken on extra food and water in case of a protracted dispute.

Spokesman Ruben Neugebauer told The National the ship had the capability to travel to France or Spain, but the poor health of those rescued who had been held in Libyan prisons and detention camps meant that was not always a practical solution.

“On our last mission we had to hydrate a lot of people via intravenous drips,” he said. “This is a serious medical situation that we often face.”

Sending rescued migrants to Spain is unlikely to be a long-term solution. The rescue ships are barred by law from returning those rescued to the North African shores of Tunisia or Libya that have been the main departure points for migrants.

Despite the hardline stance of the Italian government, mayors of southern cities including Palermo and Naples had said they would take the rescued migrants. The offers were symbolic as they were unable to act without the permission of the Italian coastguard, according to NGO officials.

Mr Neugebauer called on the European Union to end the system that puts the onus on the receiving countries to process asylum applications. Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece complained that were hit hardest by the effects of the 2015 migration crisis from North Africa, and the EU did too little to help.

The crisis led to the rise of right-wing groups across Europe who have taken action to prevent migrants from arriving. Mr Salvini had campaigned on a platform to expel thousands of migrants already in Italy.

Nearly 34,000 people had arrived in Europe by sea in the first half of this year, according to the UN - significantly less than the more than a million who landed in 2015 at the peak of the crisis. More than 16,000 people are estimated to have died or are missing since 2014.