The Aquarius rescued hundreds of migrants, including 134 children and seven pregnant women, trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya on Saturday, but ended up adrift off the coast of Sicily as both Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.
The rescue, carried out by charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, had been coordinated by Italy’s coast guard, but the newly installed government then refused to let the migrants disembark on Italian soil.
Italy argued that Malta, which is closer to Libya, should take on the migrants, but the Maltese government refused, saying that they had no legal responsibility for the people onboard, causing a two-day deadlock.
After both the UN and the EU put pressure on the two nations to solve the situation, Italy appealed for a fellow EU country to receive the asylum-seekers, to which Spain responded and offered a safe port in Valencia.
Earlier today, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini threatened to bar all rescue ships from docking in Italian ports unless Malta would take on the Aquarius and its passengers.
Salvini, leader of the anti-immigration League party, said that while saving lives was a duty, ‘transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not’, and demanded that the ship should be allowed to dock in Malta.
Salvini reportedly sent a letter to the Maltese authorities saying he would ‘be forced to close Italy’s ports’ if the 629 migrants weren’t allowed to land at Malta’s capital Valletta. Italy’s interior ministry said they had so far been unable to confirm the existence of the letter.
‘Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,’ Salvini, the leader of the right-wing anti-migrant League party, said on Facebook on Monday.
‘Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no.’
A spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders said: ‘We are under the clear coordination of the Italian MRCC [Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres] and it is their duty to give us safe instructions to disembark all 629 people on board.
‘According to The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), a rescue is complete when the people are safely disembarked in a port of safety.’
Earlier today, the United Nations refugee agency called on the governments of Italy and Malta to ‘allow the immediate disembarkation’ of the migrants on the Aquarius, adding that those onboard ‘are running out of provisions.’
The European Commission also urged action, saying Italy and Malta’s priority should be the health and safety of those onboard.