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The New Arab

Spain offers harbour for migrants trapped in Mediterranean limbo

More than 600 rescued migrants are on board the Aquarius [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 June, 2018

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Spain has stepped up to take in more than 600 refugees after Italy and Malta refused to allow the MSF rescue ship to dock.
Spain's prime minister said the country will accept hundreds of migrants on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) rescue ship, who were stranded in the Mediterranean after Italy and Malta shut their ports.

Pedro Sanchez said he would give "safe harbour" to the Aquarius and the 629 refugees on board, who were rescued from six different missions off the coast of Libya at the weekend.

Those on board included 11 children and seven pregnant women, MSF said, as well as those who needed urgent medical care for hypothermia and chemical burns after being rescued.

Italy told Aquarius on Sunday to "standby in [their] current position," MSF tweeted, while Malta refused to allow the ship to dock.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR urged European goverments to end the diplomatic standoff and allow the immediate disembarkation of the migrants to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

"There is an urgent humanitarian imperative here," said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean. "People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly. Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between States should be looked at later."

MSF tweeted late on Sunday that Italy had asked the Malta Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre to disembark all rescued people in Malta, after Italy closed its ports to the Aquarius.

Italy's new hardline anti-immigration Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused to let it in, saying: "Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not."

But Malta's Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security issued a statement saying it is not responsible for the rescue effort coordinated by the Aquarius, saying it fell under Italy's jurisdiction.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted: "We are concerned at #Italy authorities' directions given to #Acquarius on high seas. They manifestly go against international rules, and risk creating a dangerous situation for all those involved."

Salvini wrote on Facebook on Sunday morning that Italy was saying "no" to human trafficking, and attacked European neighbours for refusing migrants.

"In the Mediterranean Sea, there are boats carrying Dutch, Spanish, Gibraltar and British flags. There are NGO's from Spain and Germany, meanwhile there is also Malta that does not welcome anyone.

"There is France too, that refuses and pushes back at their border. There is Spain that protects their own borders with weapons, well, that means all of Europe is minding its own private interest," Salvini said.

"Starting today Italy will commence to say NO to human trafficking, NO to the business of clandestine immigration.
My objective is to guarantee a peaceful life to all these people in Africa and to our children in Italy."

On Twitter, MSF lashed out at the European leaders on their stance, saying "again politics are being placed above people's lives".
The focal point for Mediterranean migration in recent years has been Italy, where more than 700,000 migrants have arrived since 2013. UNHCR said that while Italy has seen some 13,706 sea arrivals so far in 2018, the number is a significant decrease from recent years.

More than 20,000 migrants have disappeared or died trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014. Increasingly tight security along Europe's eastern borders has forced migrants to choose the more perilous sea journeys.

Libya has become a key transit point for sub-Saharan African migrants seeking to embark on dangerous journeys to Europe.

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