Spain offers to dock migrant ship at heart of Italy-Malta standoff

Posted June 12, 2018

Italy and Malta dug in for a second day Monday and refused to let a rescue ship with 629 people aboard dock in their ports, leaving the migrants at sea as a diplomatic standoff escalated under Italy's new anti-immigrant government.

The 629 rescued migrants on board the ship Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without borders, come from Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan, and include 88 women - seven of which are pregnant - 123 unaccompanied minors and 11 children.

More than 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years.

The move by Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who is also head of the far-right League, is an attempt to make good on his electoral promises to halt the flow of migrants into the country.

Italy, which has a new, anti-immigration government, suggested that Malta take in the migrants. "France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons".

Salvini's migration policies may well face challenges not only from Italy's vibrant civil society groups but also in the courts and from European Union institutions.

"My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy", he said, using the Twitter hashtag "We are shutting the ports".

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe 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 number of migrants arriving in Spain has been on the rise, Benavides reports, while the number of sea arrivals in Italy "has dropped 77 percent compared to this time past year, following controversial deals with the Libyan Coast Guard and investigations into NGO search-and-rescues".

He tweeted: #Chiudiamoiporti. "We're closing the ports".

Rescue at sea is regulated by global law, which "is clear on the fact that any shipmaster has the obligation to provide assistance to persons in distress at sea", said Dr. Sarah Wolff, a lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary University, London.

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 standoff marked the first display of Italy's get-tough immigration policy under the right-wing League.

Italian police questioned the boat's captain for more than four hours, according to the NGO, and journalists aboard were asked to hand over video footage of the rescue operation, which took place on June 5.

The UN refugee agency in Italy has called on "states and actors involved" to "rapidly find solutions to allow migrants and refugees on board the Aquarius to disembark safely and quickly". "We have never been a situation before where we have been denied a right to a port of safety", he said Monday via a WhatsApp message.

The agency was sent questions to assess whether any of the countries were violating their obligations to Frontex or any other global agreements, and at which port should the migrants disembark. It ends what was becoming an increasingly hard and untenable situation for the crew of the Aquarius and the more than 600 rescued people who were aboard.