Rome (AFP) – Hundreds of migrants stranded on a rescue vessel in the Mediterranean will be taken to Spain with the help of two Italian ships, a charity said Tuesday, after deteriorating weather conditions sparked fears for their safety.
The 629 migrants, including pregnant women and scores of children, have been at the heart of a huge row between Malta and Italy since their maritime rescue by French charity SOS Mediterranee on Saturday.
Malta and the new populist government of Italy refused to allow the Aquarius rescue vessel to dock.
The move from Rome was the first major anti-migrant step since a eurosceptic, populist government took office this month.
The new Spanish administration of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez then offered to allow the Aquarius to dock in the eastern port city of Valencia, insisting it was an “obligation” to do so.
Aid workers then raised fears that the ship would not be able to reach Spain safely due to deteriorating weather conditions.
They were also concerned the vessel, which was built to transport just 500 people, could not safely carry all 629 of those rescued at sea.
Among those on board the Aquarius are seven pregnant women, 11 young children and 123 unaccompanied minors.
On Tuesday morning, Italian rescuers offered to help transfer the migrants to Spain, following three nights of tension for the migrants and aid workers, and after authorities on the French island of Corsica also offered the vessel safe haven.
“Plan from MRCC (the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) Rome is that rescued people will later be transferred on Italian ships before heading together to #Valencia,” SOS Mediteranee said on Twitter.
“We don’t yet have any information about the departure time,” the charity’s Marseille-based spokeswoman Laura Garel told AFP, adding that the journey from Maltese waters to Valencia would take at least three days.
On Tuesday morning, an Italian vessel delivered fresh supplies to the Aquarius as it awaited departure from Maltese waters.
– ‘A European issue’ –
Malta and Italy both thanked Spain for stepping up, but maintained their dispute over who was responsible.
“VICTORY,” tweeted Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said his country had “asked for a gesture of solidarity from Europe and this gesture has been made”.
Conte is set to head to Paris for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday ahead of a European summit on June 28-29, with a particular focus on migration, Macron’s office said Monday.
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted his thanks to Sanchez “for agreeing to accept the Aquarius after Italy violated international law and caused an impasse”.
He added: “It will be necessary to sit down and discuss how to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. This is a European issue.”
The UN had called on Malta and Italy to immediately allow the boat to dock, describing the situation as “an urgent humanitarian imperative”.
The EU and its biggest member state Germany made similar pleas.
“The priority of both the Italian and Maltese authorities should be ensuring these people receive the care they need,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters, calling for a “swift resolution”.
But Salvini refused to back down.
“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,” he wrote on Twitter followed by the hashtag #closethedoors.
– ‘Safety before politics’ –
MSF Sea (Doctors Without Borders) said Tuesday the Aquarius was receiving supplies, coordinated by Italian rescue authorities.
“#MSF calls for people’s safety to come before politics,” the organisation said on Twitter.
Under EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive.
That has put 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.
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.