Update 2 | Aquarius standoff: Spain will take rescue ship with 629 migrants on board

Spanish Prime Minister gives orders for Aquarius to dock in Valencia • The rescue vessel remains in international waters as Malta and Italy hold their ground and insist that the other should receive the migrants • Home Affairs minister Matteo Salvini declares 'victory' in standoff

Some of the rescued migrants currently on the Aquarius, which has been refused entry into both Malta and Italy (Photo: UNHCR)
Some of the rescued migrants currently on the Aquarius, which has been refused entry into both Malta and Italy (Photo: UNHCR)

Updated at 4pm with Matteo Salvini's reaction

Spain has stepped in and said it would be welcoming the Aquarius, with 629 migrants on board, and allow it to dock in Valencia.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, the Spanish government said that “The prime minister has given instructions so that Spain can fulfil its international humanitarian crisis commitments and has announced that the Aquarius will be welcomed into a Spanish port ... It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a ‘safe harbour’ to these people in accordance with international law.”

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat thanked Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez for taking the Aquarius in “after Italy broke international rules and caused a standoff.”

He said Malta would be sending fresh supplies to the vessel.

“We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again,” Muscat said.

Salvini declares 'victory'

Reacting to the news Italy's Home Affairs minister Matteo Salvini said Italy had reached its "first objective" . Salvini said it was "unacceptable" for Malta to act as if nothing is happening. "Malta has safe ports," Salvini added.

Asked by journalists whether a permanent solution had been found, Salvini said his objective was to stop human trafficking, irrespective of what the name of the ship was, indicating that other standoffs could be possible in the coming days.

He denied Italy had pushed back migrants, saying that Italy had only asked other countries to step in . "The Italian military has been solely responsible for patrolling the central Mediterranean to rescue people and this cannot continue."

Salvini said the ultimate objective was to have secure ports and reception centres inside Libya to avoid people making the sea crossing.

UNHCR appeals for immediate disembarkation

Earlier in the day UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, had previously appealed to the governments of Malta and Italy to allow the immediate disembarkation of the hundreds of people currently aboard the rescue ship Aquarius, which is currently stranded in international waters.

The vessel, which is carrying 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and seven pregnant women has been refused entry into both Malta and Sicily and is currently circling in international waters some 27 nautical miles from Maltese territorial waters and 35 miles from Italian waters.

“There is an urgent humanitarian imperative here,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNCHR’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.”

Read more: Muscat tells Italian prime minister Malta will not take in Aquarius

Moreover, Chochetel said that “fundamentally, the principle of rescue at sea must not be put into doubt through incidents like this”.

He added that other governments also needed to act to support countries dealing with sea arrivals.

“This could include a predictable mechanism across the region for disembarkation, based on good cooperation amongst states and other relevant actors,” he said

Italy has seen some 13,706 sea arrivals so far in 2018, a significant decrease compared to recent years.

The migrants currently on the Aquarius were rescued during six operations within Libyan Search and Rescue Area on Saturday night. The Maltese government has said that the mission was coordinated by the rescue coordination centre in Rome and that Malta was neither the coordinating authority nor the country with competence on the case.  

The closest, safest port, excluding Libya, was Lampedusa, however, Italian Home Affairs Minister Matteo Salvini ordered all of his country’s ports closed to the ship, insisting that Italy can no longer continue to bear the brunt of migration which he contends is being facilitated by NGOs operating "sea taxis".

Read more: Aquarius standoff: As Malta and Italy squabble, migrants pray on stranded ship

Malta on its part is insisting it stands is in line with its international obligations that state any rescued people should be taken to the closest, safest port of call.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has made it clear that Malta will offer to evacuate people who require urgent medical help, without prejudice to its stand in refusing entry to the ship.

European Commission reacts

Meanwhile, in Brussels a spokesperson for European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said the EU executive was closely following developments in the Mediterranean and Avramopoulos urged the Italian and Maltese authorities to provide care to the more than 600 migrants aboard the stranded ship neither country wants to accept.

Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas also told a news conference the priority needed to remain the people on board.

"We are talking about people ... The priority of both the Italian and Maltese authorities should be ensuring these people receive the care they need," Schinas said.

"We call on all involved to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people on board the Aquarius vessel may be safely disembarked as soon as possible." 

PES accuse Italian government of seeking diplomatic tiff with Malta

And in a hard-hitting statement, the president of the European Socialists, Sergei Stanishev described the Italian government's actions as "disgusting".

"The new government of Italy, an alliance of populists and the far right, has refused to allow a rescue ship to dock in the southern Italian port of Palermo because it fears a loss of support in local elections... It is disgusting that the new Italian government is willing to risk hundreds of innocent lives, including those of children and pregnant women, simply to maintain its permanent electoral campaign mode for domestic political purposes," Stanishev said.

He said it was ironic that an anti-European government coalition is falling back on the argument that "migration is a European responsibility", while trying to provoke a diplomatic crisis with the Maltese government. Stanishev said Italy was refusing to fulfill its own obligations under international law.

Stanishev commanded the progressive mayors of south of Italy coastal cities for their expressed willingness to disobey inhumane instructions from Italy’s new leaders.

More in Europe