Spain offers to take in Aquarius ship carrying over 600 refugees

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Spain‘s new government has stepped up and offered to take in a rescue ship that is drifting in the Mediterranean sea with 629 migrants on board after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, a socialist who took office just over a week ago, gave instructions for the humanitarian vessel to be admitted to the eastern port of Valencia, his office said in a statement on Monday.

The Aquarius ship took the people, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women, from inflatable boats off the coast of Libya at the weekend.

It sailed north towards Italy, but Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League party who became interior minister this month vowing to curb an influx of migrants from Africa, blocked it and said it should go to Malta, a fellow European Union member, instead.

“Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,” Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party, who became interior minister this month, wrote on Facebook on Monday.

Malta refused, saying it had nothing to do with the rescue mission, which was overseen by Italian coastguard.

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

The Aquarius spent the day on the water. By Monday, the ship still did not know where to disembark the 629 people they had rescued. 

“The Aquarius has followed the orders of the Maritime Coordination Centre and we are awaiting the designation of a safe port to disembark,” explained Nicola Stalla, the coordinator of search and rescue operations of SOS Mediterranee, according to El Pais newspaper. 

Medical workers on the ship had said it would run out of food by the end of Monday, while the UN’s refugee agency called on politicians to find a solution.

“States and actors involved should rapidly find solutions to allow migrants and refugees on board to disembark safely and quickly,” it said in a tweet.

“Hundreds of people urgently need assistance, slowing down operations puts their well being at risk.”

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau offered her city’s help while criticising other Europeans, saying the crisis over the Aquarius “puts in question” the unity of the EU.

After Sanchez’s move, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte thanked Spain – as did Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat while also blaming Italy for the ship’s prolonged journey. 

The Mediterranean has long been a key route into Europe for refugees and migrants are using North African states, such as Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt as launch points for journeys.

In the year 2017, 171,635 migrants and refugees made the sea crossing into Europe and 3,116 people died or went missing trying to do so.

Earlier in June, at least 112 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of Tunisia while trying to make the journey north across the Mediterranean.

SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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