ABOARD THE OPEN ARMS IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA (AP) — A Spanish rescue boat plucked 60 migrants Saturday from a patched-up rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea near Libya, igniting another political row between Italy and Malta over who should let the aid boat dock.
The vessel, Open Arms, run by Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms, said it rescued the migrants — including five women, a nine-year-old child and three teenagers — after it spotted a rubber boat patched with duct tape floating in the sea. All the migrants appeared in good health.
Italy’s right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini quickly declared that the rescue boat “can forget about arriving in an Italian port” and claimed the boat should go to Malta, the nearest port.
But Malta swiftly pushed back, with its interior minister contending that the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, was closer to the boat.
The Open Arms is the third rescue ship operated by humanitarian groups in the central Mediterranean to come into the crosshairs of Salvini’s crackdown in the last three weeks.
Even though the number of migrants arriving in Europe is sharply down this year from 2017, the topic of migration has deepened political divisions in the European Union, fueled in part by the demands of anti-migrant nationalist parties.
Salvini has vowed that no more humanitarian groups’ rescue boats will dock in Italy, where in recent years, private rescue vessels have brought many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants saved from smugglers’ boats.
But cracks have started showing between the two parties in Italy’s new populist coalition government over Salvini’s hard-line approach.
Roberto Fico, president of Parliament’s lower chamber and a leading figure in the 5-Star Movement, the ruling coalition’s senior partner, told reporters after inspecting a migrant reception center in a Sicilian port town that “I wouldn’t close the ports.”
Fico told reporters that Libya now “isn’t a place with security” and its coast guard “needs the support of the Italian navy and coast guard and also from some NGO boats.” He urged more solidarity toward the migrants, who he said have “dramatic stories that touch the heart.”
Salvini contended Saturday on Twitter that the Open Arms had taken on the migrants before a Libyan boat in Libya’s search-and-rescue zone could intervene.
But the Open Arms’ captain, Marco Martinez, said he told the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Center about the migrants and was instructed to call Libyan maritime authorities, who didn’t answer either by phone or by radio. The captain said officials in Rome then told him it was up to him to decide whether to carry out the rescue.
An Associated Press journalist aboard a nearby rescue vessel, the Astral, when the dinghy was spotted reported that a Libya coast guard vessel approached the Open Arms, but just as it neared the rescue, it made a U-turn and left, ordering the Open Arms to return to Spain.
Malta’s interior minister, Michael Farrugia, tweeted a sharp retort to Salvini.
“Quit spreading incorrect news, dragging Malta into it for no reason,” he wrote, attaching a map that he said indicated the rescue occurred in Libya’s search-and-rescue area and in waters between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
A day earlier, a Spanish aid boat reported that it was called off rescuing a boat in trouble by Italy’s coordination center, which said the Libyan coast guard would handle it. The Libyan coast guard rescued 16 people, but another 100 migrants were reported missing and feared dead at sea.
Even before those deaths Friday, the U.N. refugee agency said 1,137 migrants are estimated to have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year.
While politicians bickered, those rescued by the Open Arms were jubilant, jumping, chanting and hugging their rescuers.
A 9-year-old boy’s eyes sparkled when the Open Arms crew referred to him as “captain” after he was allowed to sit in the captain’s seat on the bridge for a few minutes. Krisley Dokouada from Central African Republic was rescued along with his parents.
Others rescued Saturday included six Libyans and people from Mali, Eritrea, Egypt, Bangladesh, South Sudan and Guinea.
Saturday’s successful rescue was witnessed by four European Parliament lawmakers aboard a companion vessel, the Astral. The lawmakers and an AP journalist then boarded the Open Arms to meet the migrants and rescue crew.
One lawmaker, Javi Lopez of Spain, said authorities in Spain were studying the possibility of taking in the migrants since Malta and Italy weren’t providing safe harbor.
There was no immediate answer from Spanish authorities. Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza said the boats were heading north while negotiations with different countries were ongoing.
Earlier in June, Spain took in 630 migrants on another rescue group’s vessel, the Aquarius, after they spent nearly a week stuck in the Mediterranean after both Malta and Italy refused to let it dock.
Italian officials have called humanitarian groups “taxi services” for human traffickers based in largely lawless Libya, while other people, including Pope Frances, have demanded that authorities treat the migrants with respect.
D’Emilio reported from Rome. Stephen Calleja in Malta and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed.