Spain has offered to take in a rescue ship that is drifting in the Mediterranean sea with 629 migrants stranded on board after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.
The Aquarius picked up the migrants from inflatable boats and rafts off the coast of Libya at the weekend, and the United Nations refugee agency said on Monday it was running out of provisions.
The Aquarius took the migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women, toward Italy but the country’s new, far-right Interior Minister barred it from docking and said it should go to Malta.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, promised voters a tough stance on immigration in the run up to the recent election.
He said Malta should accept the Aquarius, but the government in Valletta said those rescued fall under Italy’s jurisdiction as they were picked up the migrants in Libyan waters.
Writing on his Facebook page, Salvini said: “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.”
Around 400 of those on board were rescued by the Italian Navy, the Italian coastguard and merchant vessels before being transferred to the Aquarius.
In defiance of Salvini, the mayor of Palermo said he would allow the boat to dock in the Sicilian capital on Sunday night, however a journalist on board tweeted to say the boat had not moved since Sunday night.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez followed the offer, giving instructions for the boat to be admitted to the eastern port of Valencia, his office said in a statement.
“It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations,” Sanchez’s office said.
A spokesperson for MSF told HuffPost UK in a a statement: “MSF has heard reports that Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has offered Valencia as the port of call for the Aquarius.
“MSF has not yet received an official message from the coordinating bodies of MRCC of Italy or Spain about this, but MSF would welcome the offer. The situation on board for 629 rescued people, many of whom are in need of medical attention, needs an urgent resolution.”
Nick Romaniuk, search and rescue coordinator for the vessel, told the BBC Radio 4 Today show on Monday morning that those on board had been rescued in difficult conditions and were in need of medical attention.
He said: “We have doctors on board who are taking care of them but it’s not definitive care so they do need to be disembarked as soon as possible so they can get the best treatment that they can.”
SOS Méditerranée spokesperson Mathilde Auvillain said the boat had received orders to head north after a series of sea rescues and was now was awaiting “definitive instructions”.
“Our objective is the disembarkation in a port of safety of the 629 people now on board the Aquarius – some we rescued yesterday night in difficult conditions,” she said.
Anelise Borges, a correspondent for Euro News and NBC, said the situation on board was calm on Monday morning. In a video, she said: “People are slowly getting up and getting ready for their first meal and we are yet to learn which port they are going to be using to disembark. Still no news from Italian authorities.”
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”.