Paris (AFP) – The fate of 629 migrants stranded at sea for days has sparked bitter recriminations after their rescue ship was turned away from ports in Italy and Malta.
Here is a summary of the dramatic rejection of the migrant boat — until Spain came to its aid — which is now developing into a major row between Italy and France.
– Stranded at sea –
On June 9 a French migrant rescue charity, SOS Mediterranee, collects the 629 African migrants from the central Mediterranean in six separate night-time operations.
Among them are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 small children and seven pregnant women.
On board the NGO’s ship Aquarius between Malta and Sicily, they seek a secure port to land.
The following day, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini — part of a new populist government that has vowed a tough stance on immigration — insists that Malta takes the ship.
Salvini sends a letter to Maltese authorities warning he may “be forced to close Italy’s ports”, La Repubblica newspaper reports .
In response, Malta’s government underlines it has no direct obligation to do so as the rescue occurred in an area under Rome’s coordination.
“As such Malta will not take the said vessel in its ports,” it says.
– Supplies ‘running out’ –
On June 11 the United Nations calls on Italy and Malta to immediately allow the boat to dock, describing the situation as “an urgent humanitarian imperative”.
An envoy of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says “people are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly.”
The European Union and its biggest member state, Germany, make similar pleas and call for a “swift resolution”.
While still refusing to open its ports, Malta offers to send fresh supplies to the rescue ship.
– #closethedoors –
Salvini rejects the appeals, responding on Twitter the same day: “Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not.”
“Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying, this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO,” says the tweet, followed by the hashtag #closethedoors.
– Spain steps in –
Later on June 11 Spain’s new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez offers to allow the ship to dock in the eastern port of Valencia.
There is an “obligation to help to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe,” a statement says.
“VICTORY,” tweets Salvini.
The French charity running Aquarius warns the ship will have to travel 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) to reach the port, but by the next day “there will be no more food (on board) apart from energy biscuits.”
Amid fears that deteriorating weather and cramped conditions on board could make the journey perilous, the French island of Corsica also offers the vessel a safe haven.
But SOS Mediterranee announces soon afterwards that the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre has instructed that the migrants will be transferred onto two Italian boats for the journey to Spain.
Around 72 hours after the rescue, the three boats set sail for Valencia around 1900 GMT on June 12, the journey expected to take three to four more days.
– Rome v Paris –
On June 12 French President Emmanuel Macron accuses Italy’s leaders of “cynicism and irresponsibility” and says they broke international maritime law by refusing the boat.
“In cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond,” says his spokesman Benjamin Griveaux.
The Italian government responds that it will not accept “hypocritical lessons from countries that have preferred to look the other way on immigration.”
In a speech to Italy’s Senate on June 13, Salvini says France has only taken in 640 of the 9,816 migrants it had promised to accept from Italy.
He says without an “official apology” from France, a planned meeting in Paris on June 15 between Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte should be cancelled.
The Italian foreign ministry summons the French ambassador to Rome and the Italian economy minister cancels a meeting with his French counterpart.