Spain accepts stranded migrants amid Italy-Malta clash

ROME – Spain agreed to welcome the NGO rescue ship carrying 629 migrants on Monday, officials said, as Italian anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Maltese officials fought a tense war of words with the vessel caught in a 30-hour limbo in the Mediterranean.

 Both Italy and Malta turned away the Aquarius migrant rescue ship, which was stranded until Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez broke the deadlock, saying Valencia would provide “safe harbour” to the hundreds on board, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and seven pregnant women.

 For the first time, Italy refused docking access to a search and rescue ship as Salvini closed the country’s ports and condemned Malta’s reluctance to accept the vessel.

 “Evidently raising your voice, something Italy did not do for years, pays off,” Salvini said, as if to justify his uncompromising stance during the humanitarian emergency.

 Malta has denied responsibility, indicating that the boat, operated by German charity SOS Méditerranée, plucked the migrants from Libyan waters, and as such Italy should be held accountable.

  “I cannot fail to thank the Spanish authorities for taking up the invitation. This decision goes in the direction of solidarity,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, having criticised the EU earlier for leaving Italy in “total isolation.”

 Despite food, water and medical supplies aboard the Aquarius beginning to run short, Salvini, the rigidly xenophobic League leader, appeared no closer to yielding, and was expected to turn away a second search and rescue vessel, whose operations on Monday increased the total number of shipwrecked migrants awaiting safe landing to 800.

 “Today the Sea Watch 3 ship of a German NGO flying a Dutch flag is off the Libyan coast waiting to take on the umpteenth load of immigrants to bring to Italy again,” Salvini said on Twitter, along with the hashtag “#chiudiamoiporti” (We’re closing the ports).

 Italy is saying “no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration,” the Interior Minister declared on Sunday, calling on the EU to share the burden across its members.

 “Malta takes in nobody,” he said. “It is not possible for Malta to say ‘no’ to every request for help. The Good Lord put Malta closer than Sicily to Africa.”

 “We want to reduce landings and increase expulsions,” added the resolute Salvini as he puzzles through his hopes of deporting half a million undocumented migrants from Italy.

 Yet, the Maltese government insisted that it is “neither the coordinating nor the competent authority” in the operation, whilst hundreds await a safe return to shore.

 “They are clearly against international law and risk creating a dangerous situation for all those involved,” the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said via Twitter in retaliation to Salvini’s attack.

 Former President of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, hit out at the Italian Interior Minister: “Salvini closes the ports. Then it will close the streets. Then he will lock us in our house … An isolated country, brought back to his grandmother’s time.”

 As the dispute intensified, the NGO vessel had been stranded in open water, 27 nautical miles from Malta and 35 from Italy, “without any indication of where to land,” SOS Méditerranée said.

 “All 629 people rescued in Mediterranean are unaware of the ongoing diplomatic standoff,” they added, having urged political leaders to find “a swift resolution and a designated port of safety.”

 Whilst Salvini stood firm, several Italian mayors refused to support the Interior Minster. Filippo Nogarin, Mayor of Livorno, professed a readiness to defy Salvini’s blockade and accept the vulnerable migrants, in a Facebook post.

 Nogarin, however, removed his statement, realising that it “could create problems for the government,” although he later reinforced his original, personal position that as a city, Livorno “has always had a great sensitivity to these issues.”