Skip to main content

A handout picture taken on June 11, 2018 shows members of the NGO SOS Mediterranee talking to rescued migrants aboard the Aquarius.

KARPOV/Getty Images

Hundreds of migrants were being split between three ships Tuesday for a trip to Spain in bad weather, after Italy’s new government used their plight to pressure Europe to revisit its migration policy.

The 629 migrants — including 123 unaccompanied minors and several pregnant women — were onboard the Aquarius, operated by the charity SOS Mediterranee. The migrants, stuck at sea since Saturday after Italy and Malta refused them permission to dock in their ports, are now heading for Spain, where the prime minister has offered them safe harbour.

The migrants were being transferred to two Italian ships, one Coast Guard and one Navy, because of forecasts of deteriorating weather conditions along the route to Valencia, Spain, according to SOS Mediterranee spokeswoman Mathilde Auvillain. Officials in Valencia said they expected the ship to arrive in three to four days, depending on when they depart and weather conditions.

Story continues below advertisement

Italy’s new anti-migrant, right-wing interior minister has made good on a campaign pledge to close Italian ports to non-governmental organizations that pick up migrants at sea, which he has likened to taxi services for migrant smugglers.

Matteo Salvini, whose League is part of the populist coalition that took office this month, promised voters that other European countries would be made to share the burden of caring for asylum-seekers arriving in Italy on unseaworthy boats mostly from lawless Libya, also taking particular aim at the aid vessels.

The new Spanish foreign minister said that Spain’s decision in accepting the migrant ship is also meant to push European Union leaders to address the bloc’s migration policies later this month at an EU summit.

“Spain has made a gesture that aims to trigger a European dynamic to stop looking away, allowing one (EU member) to cope with the problem while the rest of us pass the buck,” Borrell told Ser radio late on Monday.

The decision to offer a docking port in the eastern city of Valencia had been a personal and direct move by the country’s new prime minister, the Socialist Pedro Sanchez.

Many Spanish regions and cities have offered to provide long-term support to the migrants, said Valencia’s regional vice-president, Monica Oltra. The Red Cross was preparing shelter and medical assistance to meet immediate needs on their arrival.

Italy dispatched two ships Tuesday to help take 629 migrants stuck off its shores on the days-long voyage to Spain in what is forecast to be bad weather, after the new populist government refused them safe port in a dramatic bid to force Europe to share the burden of unrelenting arrivals.

Story continues below advertisement

The rescue ship Aquarius has been stuck since Saturday in international waters off the coast of Italy and Malta, both of which have denied it entry. The ship has 629 migrants including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and six pregnant women.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders, which operates the Aquarius with SOS Mediterranee, urged both Italy and Malta to reconsider their refusal to allow the stranded migrants landfall and then safe passage by other means to Spain, which has responded to the plight with an offer of safe harbour. The aid group said the migrants were “exhausted and stressed” and warned of severe health risks to a number of the passengers during the 1,500-kilometre journey, expected to take three to four days.

Italy’s new anti-migrant, right-wing interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is making good on a campaign pledge to close Italian ports to non-governmental organizations that pick up migrants at sea, which he has likened to taxi services for migrant smugglers.

Salvini, whose League is part of the populist coalition that took office this month, promised voters that other European countries would be made to share the burden of caring for asylum-seekers arriving in Italy on unseaworthy boats mostly from lawless Libya, while taking particular aim at the aid vessels.

“These are all foreign ships flying foreign flags that bring this human cargo to Italy,” Salvini told private television La7 on Monday. “We have hosted 650,000 migrants in recent years alone, all of whom pass by Malta, an EU country, and the government says, ’Ciao, Ciao, go to Italy.’ ... I am happy to have given a small, first response.”

While Salvini turned away the Aquarius, an Italian Coast Guard vessel with more than 900 migrants rescued in seven operations is expected to reach Italy’s shores on Wednesday.

Story continues below advertisement

Meanwhile, hundreds of migrants aboard the Aquarius were being transferred Tuesday afternoon to ships operated by the Italian navy and coast guard, which are then to accompany the aid ship to the Spanish port of Valencia. Many remained on the deck of the overcrowded rescue ship and their safety was at risk for the longer voyage given the forecast of bad weather, said SOS Mediterranee spokeswoman Mathilde Auvillain

Fresh provisions -- including 950 bottles of water, 800 boxes of noodles and snacks, blankets, hats and socks -- were delivered to the Aquarius on Tuesday, the charity said.

Officials in Valencia said they expected the ship to arrive in three to four days, depending on when they depart and weather conditions.

The emergency was prompting vastly different reactions in European capitals.

While Spain’s foreign minister said he hoped its gesture of solidarity would help push other EU members to re-examine migrant policy at a summit later this month, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Italy’s cynicism and irresponsibility for leaving the migrants at sea, while also deflecting criticism for not allowing the ship to dock in France.

Macron’s spokesman, Benjamin Grivaux said France doesn’t want to “start a precedent” that would allow some European countries to breach international laws and rely on other EU member states. But he quoted Macron as telling Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting: “If any ship was closer to France’s shores, it could obviously dock on the French coast.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Joseph Borrel said late Monday that “Spain has made a gesture that aims to trigger a European dynamic to stop looking away, allowing one (EU member) to cope with the problem while the rest of us pass the buck.”

The new Spanish foreign minister said the decision to offer a docking port in the eastern city of Valencia had been a “personal and direct” move by the country’s new prime minister, the Socialist Pedro Sanchez.

Hungary’s radically anti-immigrant prime minister praised Salvini’s move. Viktor Orban said his initial reaction to the news was a sigh of “Finally!” He called it “a great moment which may finally bring changes in Europe’s migration policies.”

Many Spanish regions and cities have offered to provide long-term support to the migrants, said Valencia’s regional vice-president, Monica Oltra. The Red Cross was preparing shelter and medical assistance to meet immediate needs on their arrival.

Doctors without Borders expressed particular concern for patients who had been resuscitated and risked developing “significant pulmonary disease after swallowing sea water.” Another 21 patients suffered severe chemical burns from exposure to sea water mixed with fuel, while others risk pneumonia and yet others need immediate surgery for orthopedic issues.

SOS Mediterannee also said that removing the Aquarius risked lives.

“People are still fleeing Libya while the Aquarius is away from the search and rescue area in the Central Mediterranean, where rescue capacities are already totally insufficient,” the charity’s vice-president, Sophie Beau, said.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter