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Europe’s refugee crisis

Spain offers to take migrant boat, spurned by Italy and Malta – but uncertainty and a dangerous voyage await

The NGO that rescued the 629 migrants says it will take several days of sailing to make it to Spain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 9:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 8:31pm

The head of the French charity which charters the Aquarius migrant rescue ship said on Tuesday that it would continue its operations despite the international stand-off over the 629 people currently on-board.

The defiant comments from Sophie Beau, head of the charity SOS Mediterranee, suggest the row over the stranded ship could repeat itself – not least as migrant attempts to cross the Mediterranean increase in the warm summer months.

Beau said a “one-off solution” had been found for the Aquarius after Spain offered to take in its passengers following refusals from the nearest countries, Italy and Malta.

But the charity’s missions will continue “as long as there are people drowning in the Mediterranean, as long as we have the resources, and as long as we are able to act and we are not kicked out of the area,” she said.

“The rescues will continue and it is crucial that European countries talk amongst themselves to find acceptable solutions” to bring to shore migrants stranded in the Mediterranean, she said.

Beau said her charity, based in the southern French port city of Marseille, was acting under international law in giving “assistance to people in distress”.

Beau acknowledged that Italy, whose populist new government refused to allow the Aquarius to dock, must not have to “shoulder the burden alone” after taking the brunt of the migrant crisis for years as the main entry point from Africa.

“Safety of all rescued people should remain the priority before all. Italian maritime authorities must organise for a safe and fast solution for the 629 people on board,” SOS said late on Monday.

A bitter row broke out between Italy and Malta at the weekend over which country should take in the Aquarius rescue boat, which picked up the migrants on Saturday and Sunday.

Spain tried to defuse the situation by giving instructions for the boat to dock in Valencia to “avoid a humanitarian disaster” and its crew received official entry approval late on Monday.

The NGO was blocked from docking by Italy’s new anti-immigrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who argued that people plucked from the Mediterranean should not all end up on his country’s shores.

“Clearly, politely raising our voice – something that the Italian government had not done for a long time, for years – pays,” Salvini said from the headquarters of his far-right League party.

Salvini had initially asked Malta to take in the Aquarius, but the government in Valletta said the issue was not its responsibility and accused Italy of “creating a dangerous situation.”

“Italy broke international rules and caused a stand-off,” Maltese premier Joseph Muscat tweeted. “We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again,” he added.

Salvini said he saw the incident as a “first important signal” toward greater burden-sharing of migration inflows within the European Union.

Paris defended its decision not to offer safe harbour to the ship.

Corsican leaders Gilles Simeoni and Jean-Guy Talamoni, the top politicians on the French Mediterranean island, tweeted an offer on Tuesday morning as uncertainty grew over the fate of the people on board.

But the central government in Paris criticised the gesture by the Corsican nationalists.

“[Simeoni] is taking a position without having any responsibility which is easy,” junior Europe and foreign affairs minister Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne told Sud Radio. “What does international law say? They need to go to the port that is safest and closest. And we can see that Corsica is not the closest or the safest. Given the boat’s location, it is between Italy and Malta.”

Italy has been the main entry point for Europe-bound migrants since 2015, and even previous interior ministers – more moderate than Salvini – complained about insufficient help from EU allies.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse