Spain offered on Monday to take in a ship stranded in the Mediterranean with 629 migrants aboard after Italy and Malta refused to let the vessel dock in their ports.
The migrants, including pregnant women and scores of children, were saved by the French charity SOS Mediterranee on Saturday. They were taken on board its ship Aquarius, which is now between Malta and Sicily.
Malta and the new populist government in Italy each refused to take the migrants in, accusing one another of failing to meet their obligations. The row has triggered international concern about the migrants’ plight.
The refusal to accept the Aquarius in Italy was the first major anti-migrant move since far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini took office this month. But Spain’s new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez agreed to allow the Aquarius to dock in its eastern port of Valencia, his office said in a statement.
“It is our obligation to help to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and to offer a safe port to these people,” his office said in a statement.
Desperate human beings stranded at sea & intl commitments abandoned. This isn't good enough. For the sake of our Union, we need to urgently reform our migration systems to deliver a truly European solution, based on responsibility & solidarity #Aquarius https://t.co/KADdnDudu2
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) June 11, 2018
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 ship will have to travel some 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) to reach the Spanish coast and that by Tuesday “there will be no more food (on board) apart from energy biscuits.”
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in a tweet that “Malta is going to send fresh supplies to the ship.”
Italy and Malta thanked Spain for stepping up, but maintained their dispute over who was responsible.
“We asked for a gesture of solidarity from Europe and this gesture has been made,” Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said.
Muscat tweeted his thanks to Sanchez “for agreeing to accept the Aquarius after Italy violated international law and caused an impasse.”
He added: “It will be necessary to sit down and discuss how to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. This is a European issue.”
Beau said that under maritime law the ship should be allowed to dock in one of the nearest countries, Italy or Malta.
‘Close the Doors’
The U.N. had called on Malta and Italy to immediately allow the boat to dock, describing the situation as “an urgent humanitarian imperative.”
The E.U. and the bloc’s biggest member state Germany made similar pleas.
“The priority of both the Italian and Maltese authorities should be ensuring these people receive the care they need,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters, calling for a “swift resolution.”
Salvini refused to back down.
“Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not. Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying, this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO,” he wrote on Twitter followed by the hashtag #closethedoors.
‘Vulnerable Patients at Risk’
MSF Sea (Doctors Without Borders) said the medical situation of those on the Aquarius was “stable for now but unnecessary delay to disembarkation in safe port puts vulnerable patients at risk.”
“Particularly seven pregnant woman, 15 with serious chemical burns and several critical drowning hypothermia patients,” MSF Sea said.
Conte said Sunday that Rome had sent two patrol ships with doctors on board “ready to intervene and ensure the health of anyone on board the Aquarius who might have the need”.
The migrants were rescued in six separate night-time operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday.
The French organisation said those brought on board included 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 small children and the seven pregnant women.
‘Land of Refuge’
Under E.U. rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive.
That has put pressure on Italy and Greece, the entry points for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia since 2015.
Some in Italy have offered to take in migrants. The mayor of Taranto, Rinaldo Melucci said the southern port city was “ready to embrace every life in danger.” “Our land has always been one of refuge, I don’t know how you can send away 629 human lives.”
Naples mayor Luigi de Magistris said on Twitter that “if a minister without a heart leaves pregnant women, children, old people, human beings to die, the port of Naples is ready to welcome them.”
E.U. leaders in December had set an end-June deadline for an overhaul of rules to create a permanent mechanism to deal with migrants in the event of a new emergency.
The summer of 2016 saw a surge in mass drownings in the Mediterranean, at the peak of Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.