MADRID • Spain yesterday offered to take in a rescue ship that is drifting in the Mediterranean Sea with 629 migrants stranded on board after Italy and Malta both refused to let it dock.
The Aquarius, which is operated by non-governmental organisations SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, picked up the migrants from inflatable boats and rafts off the coast of Libya at the weekend, and the United Nations refugee agency said it was running out of provisions.
Spain's 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.
"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," Mr Sanchez's office said.
The Aquarius took the migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women, towards Italy, but the country's new, far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini barred it from docking and said it should go to Malta.
"Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not," Mr Salvini wrote on Facebook yesterday. "Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there's someone saying no."
Malta refused to take the ship, saying it was Italy's responsibility as the rescue was overseen by the Italian coastguard.
People who were saved by SOS Mediterranee last Saturday and are now stuck aboard the French non-governmental organisation's ship Aquarius.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Sunday said he had told his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte that his country would not take the ship.
"We are concerned at Italy authorities' directions given to Aquarius on high seas. They manifestly go against international rules, and risk creating a dangerous situation for all those involved," Mr Muscat said on Twitter.
The small island nation with fewer than a half million inhabitants says it already accepts more refugees per capita than Italy, which has taken in more than 600,000 boat migrants since 2014.
Mr Sanchez, a Socialist who toppled his conservative predecessor with a no-confidence vote after a corruption scandal, made his offer after the mayors of Valencia and Barcelona both offered to take the boat in at their ports.
The migrants were rescued in six separate night-time operations in the Mediterranean last Saturday.
Italy's spat with Malta began after its reported refusal to help another rescue ship, the 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 last Saturday.
European Union 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.
Some in Italy have offered to take in the migrants, with Taranto mayor Rinaldo Melucci saying the southern port city was "ready to embrace every life in danger".
Meanwhile, 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 had in December set an end-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.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE