GENEVA – The United Nations’ migration agency welcomed on Tuesday an offer from Spain’s government to receive a boat carrying hundreds of migrants, ending a stand-off between Italy and Malta after they both refused entry to the rescue vessel.
While grateful of Spain’s proposal for the Aquarius ship, stranded in the Mediterranean since Saturday with 629 migrants on board, to dock in the eastern port city of Valencia, International Migration Agency director general William Lacy Swing warned that a tragedy could be on the horizon if countries decided to block their ports to such rescue vessels in future.
“I’m glad Spain has stepped forward to diffuse this crisis, but I fear a major tragedy if states start refusing to accept rescued migrants as was threatened,” said Swing. “Keeping the rescued people at sea is not, of itself, going to dissuade other migrants from crossing to Europe and they too will need to be rescued sooner or later.”
Some 629 migrants have been aboard the rescue vessel belonging to the French-German NGO SOS Mediterranee since Saturday after they were picked up from rubber boats and others from Italian navy and coast guard ships.
Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who leads the far-right League outfit, refused permission for the vessel to dock on Italian territory.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat also refused to accept the ship, wagering that because the migrants had been picked up in Libyan waters, it was Italy that should take them.
Among the people rescued were more than 120 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.
Both Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has personnel aboard the Aquarius, and SOS Mediterranee have warned that the four-day journey from the ship’s current location to Valencia posed a risk to the passengers, who had already spent 72 hours at sea while food and water reserves were fast running out.
“IOM believes that all EU Member States need to do more to support front-line states and welcomed the Spanish initiative to bring the migrants to safety,” IOM said in a statement.