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Italy turns away a rescue boat carrying 600 migrants

  • Rescue ship the Aquarius saved 629 migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya on Saturday
  • Among the migrants are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women
  • Neither Italy – which coordinated the rescue – nor Malta has allowed the ship to dock in any of their ports 
  • Interior Minister Matteo Salvini threaten to bar all rescue ships unless the Aquarius is allowed to dock in Malta
  • Salvini said that while saving lives at sea is a duty ‘transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not’
  • Spain has offered to let ship dock in Valencia, but it is not known if Italian coastguard will facilitate this

Sara Malm For Mailonline

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Mail Foreign Service

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Italy’s interior minister today said the country would not turn itself ‘into an enormous refugee camp’ after refusing to let a migrant rescue ship carrying 629 people dock at its ports. 

Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League party, said that while saving lives was a duty, ‘transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not’, and demanded that the ship should be allowed to dock in Malta. 

The crew on the Aquarius saved hundreds of migrants, including 134 children and seven pregnant women, as they tried to cross the Mediterranean from Libya on Saturday. 

Stuck at sea: Some of the 629 migrants rescued on Saturday are seen on the Aquarius, a ship run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders in the Mediterranean

Stuck at sea: Some of the 629 migrants rescued on Saturday are seen on the Aquarius, a ship run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders in the Mediterranean

Stuck at sea: Some of the 629 migrants rescued on Saturday are seen on the Aquarius, a ship run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders in the Mediterranean

Saved for a moment: The Aquarius rescue ship has 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women on board

Saved for a moment: The Aquarius rescue ship has 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women on board

Saved for a moment: The Aquarius rescue ship has 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women on board

Helped: A rescue worker is seen handing out life jackets on a dingy before dozens of migrants are saved and helped onto the Aquarius on Saturday

Helped: A rescue worker is seen handing out life jackets on a dingy before dozens of migrants are saved and helped onto the Aquarius on Saturday

Helped: A rescue worker is seen handing out life jackets on a dingy before dozens of migrants are saved and helped onto the Aquarius on Saturday

While both Italy and Malta still refuse to let the Aquarius dock, Spain has offered to take in the rescue ship.

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. 

The rescue, carried out by charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, has been coordinated by the Italian coast guard, meaning that under maritime treaties the Italians are responsible for finding a port. 

It is not known if Spain has contacted the Italian coastguard to officially extend an offer, which could allow the Aquarius to begin its journey towards Valencia.

Italy argues that the small island nation of Malta, which is closer to Libya, should take on the migrants, but the Maltese government has refused, saying that they have no legal responsibility for the people onboard. 

Rescued: A picture taken on Saturday shows a group of men who were rescued by an Italian coastguard vessel being transferred onto the Aquarius

Rescued: A picture taken on Saturday shows a group of men who were rescued by an Italian coastguard vessel being transferred onto the Aquarius

Rescued: A picture taken on Saturday shows a group of men who were rescued by an Italian coastguard vessel being transferred onto the Aquarius

Another of the multiple rescue operations which were carried out on Saturday shows dozens of migrants crammed onto a boat being transferred onto a smaller rescue vessel for transportation to the Aquarius

Another of the multiple rescue operations which were carried out on Saturday shows dozens of migrants crammed onto a boat being transferred onto a smaller rescue vessel for transportation to the Aquarius

Another of the multiple rescue operations which were carried out on Saturday shows dozens of migrants crammed onto a boat being transferred onto a smaller rescue vessel for transportation to the Aquarius

Step by step: Crew from Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee help migrants stranded in the Mediterranean

Step by step: Crew from Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee help migrants stranded in the Mediterranean

Step by step: Crew from Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee help migrants stranded in the Mediterranean

Adrift: The Aquarius is currently 'on standby' between the Italian island of Sicily and Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea

Adrift: The Aquarius is currently 'on standby' between the Italian island of Sicily and Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea

Adrift: The Aquarius is currently ‘on standby’ between the Italian island of Sicily and Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea

The two nations are currently locked in a standoff, with Salvini threatening to bar all rescue ships from docking in Italian ports unless Malta takes on the Aquarius and its passengers.

Salvini reportedly sent a letter to the Maltese authorities saying he would ‘be forced to close Italy’s ports’ if the 629 migrants weren’t allowed to land at Malta’s capital Valletta. Italy’s interior ministry said they had so far been unable to confirm the existence of the letter. 

‘Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,’ Salvini, the leader of the right-wing anti-migrant League party, said on Facebook on Monday.  ‘Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no.’   

The Aquarius is currently drifting in international waters between Italy and Malta, having been instructed to ‘stand by’ by the Italian coastguard, which co-coordinated Saturday’s rescue effort.

A spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders said: ”We are under the clear coordination of the Italian MRCC [Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres] and it is their duty to give us safe instructions to disembark all 629 people on board.

‘According to The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), a rescue is complete when the people are safely disembarked in a port of safety.’ 

The United Nations refugee agency called on the governments of Italy and Malta to ‘allow the immediate disembarkation’ of the migrants on the Aquarius, adding that those onboard ‘are running out of provisions.’ 

A woman is helped by crew on the the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Mediterranean

A woman is helped by crew on the the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Mediterranean

A woman is helped by crew on the the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Mediterranean

The Aquarius is currently drifting in international waters between Italy and Malta, having been instructed to 'standby' by the Italian coastguard 

The Aquarius is currently drifting in international waters between Italy and Malta, having been instructed to 'standby' by the Italian coastguard 

The Aquarius is currently drifting in international waters between Italy and Malta, having been instructed to ‘standby’ by the Italian coastguard 

Where to go: The operation has been coordinated by the Italian coastguard, and the ship is currently awaiting instructions on where it can dock

Where to go: The operation has been coordinated by the Italian coastguard, and the ship is currently awaiting instructions on where it can dock

Where to go: The operation has been coordinated by the Italian coastguard, and the ship is currently awaiting instructions on where it can dock

The European Commission also urged action, saying Italy and Malta’s priority should be the health and safety of those onboard.

WHY IS THE AQUARIUS STUCK AT SEA?

This weekend’s rescue operation on the Aquarius has been carried out by SOS Mediterranee in partnership with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and coordinated by the Italian coastguard.

As such, it is the Italians who are responsible for telling the Aquarius where it may dock, and Italian Coast Guard vessels picked up more than 280 of the 629 migrants and transferred them to the Aquarius to be taken to safety.

Currently, the Aquarius has been ordered to ‘stand by’ in its current position 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta.

It is not known how long the Aquarius can remain at sea, as Italy has said it is will provide aid on patrol ships, but is awaiting further instructions from the Italian coastguard.

A spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders said: ‘We are under the clear coordination of the Italian MRCC and it is their duty to give us safe instructions to disembark all 629 people on board.

‘According to SOLAS conventions, a rescue is complete when the people are safely disembarked in a port of safety.’

‘We are talking about people … The priority of both the Italian and Maltese authorities should be ensuring these people receive the care they need,’ Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news conference.

‘We call on all involved to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people on board the Aquarius vessel may be safely disembarked as soon as possible,’ Schinas said. 

A crew member who spoke to a local news channel warned that dozens of people on board are in need of medical care, and that the ship needs to dock – regardless of in which country. 

‘The people we saved yesterday [Saturday] were in a difficult condition, at least 50 were at risk of drowning,’ Aquarius crew member Alessandro Porro told news channel Sky TG24.

‘We need to have an idea of what port to go to, something that up to now we haven’t had.’ 

However, Italian premier Giuseppe 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’.  

The Maltese government insists that the rescue had taken place in the Libyan search and rescue area and was headed up by the rescue coordination centre in Rome, meaning Malta has no legal obligation to take in the migrants. 

Meanwhile, despite the  government’s refusal, several Italian cities have offered to let the Aquarius dock. 

The mayor of the southern port of Taranto, Rinaldo Melucci, said the city was ‘ready to embrace every life in danger’.

‘Our land has always been one of refuge, I don’t know how you can send away 629 human lives,’ he added.

The Mayor of Naples Luigi de Magistris said on Twitter that ‘if a minister without a heart leaves pregnant women, children, old people, human being to die, the port of Naples is ready to welcome them’.   

Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini (pictured) threatened to bar rescue ships from docking in the country's ports after Malta refused to take hundreds of migrants

Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini (pictured) threatened to bar rescue ships from docking in the country's ports after Malta refused to take hundreds of migrants

Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini (pictured) threatened to bar rescue ships from docking in the country’s ports after Malta refused to take hundreds of migrants

Some 400 of the migrants on the Aquarius had been picked up by the Italian navy, the country’s coastguard and private cargo ships, and then transferred onto the larger vessel, SOS Mediterranee said Sunday.

On Saturday night, the Aquarius rescued another 229 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children, and seven pregnant women.

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.

EU rules mean migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive, putting pressure on Italy and Greece, the entry points for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia since 2015.  

Stuck: SOS Mediterranee's ship, the Aquarius (pictured in April, 2018), carries some 630 people who were picked up by the Italian navy

Stuck: SOS Mediterranee's ship, the Aquarius (pictured in April, 2018), carries some 630 people who were picked up by the Italian navy

Stuck: SOS Mediterranee’s ship, the Aquarius (pictured in April, 2018), carries some 630 people who were picked up by the Italian navy

At the weekend, Italian authorities held the migrant rescue boat Sea-Watch 3 for 12 hours after it brought 232 people to Reggio Calabria, on the south-western tip of the mainland. 

Police questioned the boat’s captain for more than four hours, according to Sea-Watch – the NGO that operates the vessel – and journalists aboard were asked to hand over video footage of the June 5 rescue operation.

Sea-Watch said it requested help from the coastguard in Malta to send boats to aid the rescue mission but Malta refused.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday called for an EU-wide border protection force, as well as a joint asylum authority and collective standards for granting or refusing applications for protection.

EU leaders in December had set an end-of-June deadline for an overhaul of rules to create a permanent mechanism to deal with migrants in the event of a new emergency.

The summer of 2016 saw a surge in mass drownings in the Mediterranean as Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II peaked with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

The United Nations says at least 785 migrants have died crossing the sea so far this year. 

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