Spain's new prime minister has ordered authorities to allow a rescue ship carrying 629 migrants to dock in the eastern port of Valencia after the boat was refused by Italy and Malta.
A statement sent Monday by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's office says "it is our duty to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a secure port for these people."
The government statement said Spain wanted to comply with its international responsibilities on humanitarian crises.
Migrants prepare to board the Aquarius ship in the Mediterranean Sea, in an image released Monday. (Kenny Karpox/SOS Mediterranee/Associated Press)
Amid the political dispute, The Aquarius, a rescue ship belonging to the SOS Mediterraneee charity, has been stuck in the Mediterranean Sea with its passengers, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.
Italy and Malta had refused to let the rescue ship dock in their ports, leaving the migrants at sea as a diplomatic standoff escalated under Italy's new anti-immigrant government.
"Enough!" said Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. "Saving lives is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn't."
He tweeted: #Chiudiamoiporti. "We're closing the ports."
Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat also refused to take in the Aquarius ship. He accused Italy, which co-ordinated the rescue, of violating international norms governing sea rescues.
Italy's position, Muscat said, risks "creating a dangerous situation for all those involved."
Migrants on April 23 watch the Sicilian coast from the Aquarius vessel as they arrive in Trapani, Italy. Italy has called on Libya and the European Union in help stem the flow of arrivals that have arisen after a Balkan route was closed off. (Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE)
The ship said it had been ordered by Italy's coast guard co-ordination centre late Sunday to remain 55 kilometres off Italy and 45 kilometres from Malta.
The migrants had been rescued during a series of operations Saturday by Italian maritime ships, cargo vessels and the Aquarius itself. All passengers were offloaded to the Aquarius to be taken to land.
Medical workers say food onboard the ship is going to run out Monday night.
Megan Williams, on board the Aquarius in the Mediterranean, witnesses a dramatic rescue. 2:43
The United Nations had called on the countries to resolve the issue, describing it as an "urgent humanitarian imperative."
"People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly," said Vincent Cochetel, special envoy for the central Mediterranean for the UN Refugee Agency. "Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between states should be looked at later."
Migrants unaware of political incident brewing
Doctors Without Borders, which has staff aboard the Aquarius, tweeted a video of some of the women aboard the ship praying Monday morning and said they were unaware of the diplomatic drama being waged on land over their fate.
"Thank you Lord," the women sang. The group said it "urgently requests a swift resolution and a designated port of safety."
The standoff marked the first inevitable clash over migrant rescues with League leader Salvini, now running Italy's Interior Ministry. Salvini campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform that also included a vow to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants already in Italy, even though experts doubt such mass deportations are feasible or financially viable.
Malta, for its part, has consistently refused to take in migrants, citing its small size and limited capacities.
The island nation of some 415,000 people has progressively reduced the number of migrants it has taken in over the past decade, from a high of 2,775 in 2008 to just 23 last year, according to UN statistics.
Salvini pointed to Malta's unwillingness in accusing Europe as a whole of leaving Italy on its own to deal with the refugee crisis. He noted that other European countries are very much involved in current rescue operations in the Mediterranean — including a German aid group currently off Libya — but no country is stepping up to actually take in the migrants.
"Italy has stopped bowing our heads and obeying," Salvini said in a Facebook post. "This time we say no."
The standoff is actually the third in recent weeks, after the outgoing government of Premier Paolo Gentiloni refused to let humanitarian aid groups dock in Italian ports until the ships' flag nations had formally requested permission. Those incidents delayed the migrants' arrival, but they ultimately made it to Italy.
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