MADRID (Reuters): Spain offered on Monday to take in a rescue ship that is drifting in the Mediterranean Sea with 629 migrants on board after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.
The Aquarius ship picked up the migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women, from inflatable boats off the coast of Libya at the weekend. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who took office just over a week ago, has given instructions for the boat to be admitted to the eastern port of Valencia, his office said in a statement.
Malta on Sunday reiterated its refusal to accept the ship, ignoring calls from Rome.
Italy’s hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini, in a joint statement with Danilo Toninelli, minister in charge of the Italian coastguard, insisted that Malta “cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise international conventions on the protection of human life.”
“That’s why we ask the government in Valletta to take in the Aquarius in order to offer first aid to the migrants on board.”
Malta’s government replied saying Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had spoken to Italian premier Giuseppe Conte and underlined “that Malta is acting in full conformity with its international obligations.”
“As such Malta will not take the said vessel in its ports.” SOS Mediterranee tweeted late on Sunday that the Aquarius had “received instructions from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre to standby in our current position which is 35 nautical miles from #Italy and 27 nautical miles from #Malta.”
Conte said that Italy has 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.”
Speaking to AFP, a Maltese government spokesman insisted that the rescue of the migrants took place in the Libyan search and rescue area and was headed up by the rescue co-ordination centre in Rome, meaning Malta has no legal obligation to take in the migrants.
Earlier, Aquarius crew member Alessandro Porro told news channel Sky TG24, that the ship was north of Malta and had “received no communications from the Maltese authorities.”
“The people we saved yesterday were in a difficult condition, at least 50 were at risk of drowning. We need to have an idea of what port to go to, something that up to now we haven’t had.” The migrants were rescued in six separate night-time operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday. The French organisation said that 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 small children and seven pregnant women are among those brought on board.
Italy’s spat with Malta began after its reported refusal to come to the aid of another rescue ship Seefuchs, which was stranded with 126 migrants on board due to violent seas until it was allowed to dock at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo on Saturday.