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Migrants prepare to board the rescue ship Aquarius in the Mediterranean Sea, June 11, 2018.

Kenny Karpov/The Associated Press

A rescue ship overflowing with more than 600 migrants and running short of food handed Italy’s new populist government the first test of its resolve to prevent migrants from landing at home ports, even if doing so risked a humanitarian crisis and a confrontation with other European Union countries.

Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s xenophobic League party, left the Aquarius stranded in international waters between Sicily and Malta on Sunday and Monday, when he prevented the ship from reaching southern Italy. His move triggered a diplomatic confrontation with Malta, an EU member, which refused Mr. Salvini’s request to take the ship.

On Monday afternoon, Italian time, as the Aquarius’s rescue team warned that the ship’s provisions were getting dangerously low and that some passengers were getting agitated, Spain offered to take the ship. The humanitarian gesture handed Mr. Salvini an early win in his relentless campaign to stop the influx of migrants and push other EU countries into taking some pressure off Italy’s overcrowded refugee and migrant camps.

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In a tweet sent out after the Spanish government announced the overloaded Aquarius could dock at Valencia, Mr. Salvini said, “Victory!”

But it wasn’t immediately clear whether the Aquarius, which is operated by SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders), would set course for Valencia. In a tweet on Monday evening, MSF said, “Spain’s offer of safe port Valencia is 1,300 kilometres away – further 3 day journey with Aquarius already over maximum capacity. Health and safety of people rescued onboard including sick and injured people, pregnant women and children must come first.”

Mr. Salvini’s League forms one half of the coalition that formally launched a government with the Five Star Movement a week ago. The League campaigned on an anti-migrant platform that proved popular with Italian voters because Italy and Greece had borne the brunt of the refugee and migrant crisis. As interior minister and deputy prime minister, Mr. Salvini has taken direct charge of the migration file.

Related: Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to visit Nigeria to try to contain flow of asylum claimants

“Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,” he said on Facebook. “Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no.”

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, and the Libyan civil war three years later, Italy has absorbed more than 600,000 undocumented or illegal migrants, most of whom arrived by sea from North Africa. Many thousands of them drowned en route. The arrivals, however, fell sharply last year, after the previous Italian government struck a deal with Libyan authorities to stem the flow of migrants departing from the Libyan coast.

Mr. Salvini and leaders of the previous government complained that the European Union was casting Italy adrift by doing little to ease its migrant burden. The migrants were bottled in Italy when northern neighbours, including France and Austria, closed their borders to new arrivals. Political analysts said the rise of the populist movement in Italy was partly fuelled by the surge of migrant arrivals and their lack of resettlement elsewhere in the EU.

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Before the government was formed, Mr. Salvini vowed to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants, although the cost of doing so might be prohibitive. He reiterated that promise in Sicily immediately after the government was formed. “Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration,” he said.

Francesco Galietti, chief executive of Policy Sonar, a Rome political consultancy and research firm, said that Mr. Salvini’s decision to stop the Aquarius from reaching an Italian port was a calculated move to highlight Italy’s migrant plight. “It’s primarily saying that Italy cannot be left alone in dealing with so many migrants,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Galietti said it is not known whether the agreement struck with Libya by the last Italian government to slow the flow of migrants will automatically transfer to the new Italian government. That agreement is thought to have involved payments to certain Libyan authorities and strongmen. “The details of this agreement are not known and we don’t know if Salvini will inherit that deal,” he said.

If the Aquarius cannot reach Spain, it might be difficult for Mr. Salvini to prevent the ship from mooring in Italy if passengers’ lives become endangered. Even though Malta had refused to take the Aquarius, it delivered bottled water, biscuits and noodles to the ship late on Sunday.

The 77-metre-long Aquarius, which was built in 1977 as a German coast guard ship, has 629 migrants on board of more than two dozen nationalities, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa. Their number included 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women. A few of the migrants were said to be injured or ill from beatings or torture, including chemical burns, they sustained from human smugglers in Libya.

The charities said the migrants were picked up from rickety rafts in six different rescue operations and that hundreds of them had been delivered to the Aquarius by Italian navy ships that were patrolling the waters off Libya. Malta had cited the Italian navy’s involvement in the rescue effort for its refusal to take the Aquarius, calling it an Italian operation that had nothing to do with Malta.

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Spain’s new government, under socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez, said it would welcome the migrants because, “It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer ‘safe harbour’ to these people in accordance with international law.”

Migrants stranded in

Italy-Malta standoff

Italy and Malta are refusing to let a rescue ship with over 600 people aboard dock in their ports, leaving the migrants at sea as a diplomatic standoff escalates under Italy’s new anti-immigrant government.

Arrival of refugees / migrants by sea

in 2018: To June 11

GERMANY

Atlantic

Ocean

GREECE

FRANCE

11,403

Black Sea

SPAIN

ITALY

11,308

13,706

TURKEY

MALTA

MOR.

ALG.

CYPRUS

TUN.

12

Main migration routes

LIB.

EGYPT

Schengen visa-free zone

MV Aquarius: Ship of SOS Mediterranée aid group

carrying 629 migrants was stranded 65 km

from Italy and 50 km from Malta

Comparison of sea arrivals

(000s)

1,015

36

(to June 11)

363

216

172

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

the globe and mail, Source: graphic new

(Associated Press, BBC, UNHCR; Picture:

Associated Press)

Migrants stranded in Italy-Malta standoff

Italy and Malta are refusing to let a rescue ship with over 600 people aboard dock in their ports, leaving the migrants at sea as a diplomatic standoff escalates under Italy’s new anti-immigrant government.

Arrival of refugees / migrants by sea

in 2018: To June 11

GERMANY

Atlantic

Ocean

GREECE

FRANCE

11,403

Black Sea

SPAIN

ITALY

11,308

13,706

TURKEY

MALTA

MOR.

ALG.

CYPRUS

TUN.

12

Main migration routes

LIB.

EGYPT

Schengen visa-free zone

MV Aquarius: Ship of SOS Mediterranée aid group

carrying 629 migrants was stranded 65 km

from Italy and 50 km from Malta

Comparison of sea arrivals

(000s)

1,015

36

(to June 11)

363

216

172

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

the globe and mail, Source: graphic new

(Associated Press, BBC, UNHCR; Picture:

Associated Press)

Migrants stranded in Italy-Malta standoff

Italy and Malta are refusing to let a rescue ship with over 600 people

aboard dock in their ports, leaving the migrants at sea as a diplomatic

standoff escalates under Italy’s new anti-immigrant government.

Arrival of refugees / migrants by sea in 2018: To June 11

GERMANY

Atlantic

Ocean

GREECE

FRANCE

11,403

Black Sea

SPAIN

ITALY

11,308

13,706

TURKEY

MALTA

MOROCCO

ALGERIA

CYPRUS

TUNISIA

12

Main migration routes

LIBYA

EGYPT

Schengen visa-free zone

Comparison of sea arrivals (000s)

1,015

36

(to June 11)

363

216

172

MV Aquarius: Ship of SOS Mediterranée

aid group carrying 629 migrants was stranded

65 km from Italy and 50 km from Malta

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

the globe and mail, Source: graphic new (Associated Press, BBC,

UNHCR; Picture: Associated Press)

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