Migrant rescue ship idling between Italy, Malta as both countries refuse entry

Frederick Owens
June 11, 2018

The French organization SOS Mediterranee said the ship was carrying 629 migrants picked up in the Mediterranean on Saturday, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.

Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini announced on Sunday that all Italian ports were closed to the rescue boat, called Aquarius.

Supplies on the ship are beginning to run low and a number of people are in need of medical treatment, including 15 with serious chemical burns and several others suffering from hypothermia, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which operates the rescue ship Aquarius alongside SOS Méditerranée.

Around the same time, Spain's new Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, said his country would welcome the Aquarius. The mayors of two Spanish cities had also offered to receive the boat, Reuters reports.

A little more than a week ago, Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, told a crowd that "Italy and Sicily can not be Europe's refugee camp" and "the good times for illegals are over", Deutsche Welle reports.

The migrants were rescued by SOS Mediterranee's vessel Aquarius in six separate night-time operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday.

He took to Facebook to explain his move and wrote: "Enough".

"Starting today, Italy, too, begins to say NO to the trafficking of human beings, NO to the business of clandestine immigration", Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant League party, tweeted on Sunday. The Aquarius, which was built in 1977 as a German coast guard ship, has 629 migrants on board, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.

SOS Mediterranee said late Sunday that it had received instructions from Italian authorities to hold position between Malta and Italy after previously heading north. She witnessed the dramatic rescue and says the team aboard says the migrants can stay on the vessel, although food and water resources are running low. Malta said Italy coordinated the rescues and that the tiny island nation - which in the last few years has only accepted a few hundred migrants - has had nothing to do with it.

The migrant influx has led to a populist backlash, with Salvini vowing to prevent Italy from becoming the "refugee camp of Europe".

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Malta's government replied to the statement saying Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had spoken to Italian premier Giuseppe Conte, and underlined "that Malta is acting in full conformity with its worldwide obligations".

It will be hard, perhaps impossible, for Mr. Salvini to prevent the ship from mooring in Italy if passengers' lives become endangered.

Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat accused Italy of violating global norms governing sea rescues and said its stance risked "creating a risky situation for all those involved".

Talking to the paper, the legal expert said: "The decision to close the ports is more than legitimate".

However, it is now unclear whether such a move is possible as the Aquarius is obliged to obey the commands of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC), an arm of the government-controlled Italian Coast Guard.

Still, both Muscat and new Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte readily thanked Spain for the offer, with Conte saying "it goes in the direction of solidarity".

"Italy has stopped bowing its head and obeying, this time THERE ARE THOSE WHO SAY NO", he tweeted Monday.

Global law says the decision on where a boat must dock depends on the country coordinating the search and rescue operation, but the law "does not say that it should be that country itself".

Driven by violent conflicts and extreme poverty, hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached southern Europe in recent years by crossing the Mediterranean in smugglers' boats that often are unseaworthy.

Other reports by LeisureTravelAid

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