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Migrants wait to disembark from Aquarius in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, at the end of May. Photograph:Reuters

Migrant rescue ship rejected by Italy invited to dock in Spain

Pedro Sánchez says Spain will welcome the 629 migrants onboard MS Aquarius

WT24 Desk

Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has given permission for the stranded migrant rescue vessel MS Aquarius to dock in Valencia, and said his country will welcome those onboard, The Guardian reports.

The humanitarian ship, which is carrying more than 600 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya at the weekend, was turned away by Italy after Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party, blocked it from docking and said it should go to Malta instead. Malta refused, saying it had nothing to do with the rescue mission, which was overseen by the Italian coastguard.

A statement from Sánchez’s office said on Monday: “The prime minister has given instructions so that Spain can fulfil its international humanitarian crisis commitments and has announced that the Aquarius will be welcomed into a Spanish port.

“It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe harbour to these people in accordance with international law.”

Italy and Malta thanked Spain’s new Socialist prime minister for the offer to receive the rescue ship Aquarius at the port of Valencia. But it was not immediately clear if such a voyage was feasible given the distances involved. The ship is more than 1,400km (750 nautical miles) from Valencia.

The Aquarius said it had not yet received instructions to head to Spain.

Earlier, the UN’s refugee agency had called for the 629 migrants onboard, including more than 100 children, to be allowed to disembark urgently.

“People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly. Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between states should be looked at later,” said Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean.

The European commission, anxious to avoid feeding the new Italian government’s anti-EU narrative, took a softer line, calling on Italy and Malta to consider the humanitarian needs of those onboard but insisting the matter was outside its control.

“Enough!” Salvini said Monday. “Saving lives is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn’t.”

On Sunday, Salvini said all Italian ports were closed to Aquarius. “Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration,” he wrote on Facebook.

He said the route took the boat past Malta, and the boat should dock in the capital, Valletta. But Malta rejected the request, saying international law required that the migrants should be taken to Italian ports.

Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, thanked Spain on Twitter for offering to take in the Aquarius “after Italy broke international rules and caused a standoff”. He said his country would be “sending fresh supplies to the vessel. We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue.”

Mayors across the south of Italy had pledged to defy Salvini’s move on Sunday. Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, said he was ready to open the city’s seaport to the ship.

“We have always welcomed rescue boats and vessels who saved lives at sea. We will not stop now,” Orlando said. “Salvini is violating the international law. He has once again shown that we are under an extreme far-right government.’’

But a representative of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has staff on the boat, said the mayors’ remarks were “nice but not practical” because it was standard practice to wait for the Italian coastguard, which is under the control of the Italian government, to allow a ship to dock.

More than 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years, and it is estimated as many as 500,000 are still in the country. Salvini’s League, formerly the Northern League, campaigned in the last election on an anti-immigration platform, even though the previous government had overseen a big drop in the numbers coming from Libya over the past 12 months.

The humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée, which operates the Aquarius, said the migrants on board, who are mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, were picked up in six different rescue operations off the coast of Libya and included hundreds rescued from the sea by Italian naval units.

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