ROME – Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat expressed his gratitude to his Spanish counterpart in a phone call after Spain agreed to take 629 migrants who had spent days in limbo in the Mediterranean Sea aboard an NGO vessel after Italy’s far-right interior minister denied it access to his country’s ports, according to a press release on Tuesday.
Muscat had also denied entrance to the Aquarius, which belongs to French NGO SOS Mediterranee, claiming the rescued migrants were Italy’s responsibility because they were pulled to safety from vessels in Libyan waters, which are coordinated by Italian rescue authorities, but in a phone call late Monday he thanked Pedro Sanchez for intervening in the stand-off.
“The two Prime Ministers discussed migration and the situation in the Mediterranean and expressed their mutual willingness to work together at bilateral and European levels,” read a statement issued by the Maltese government.
Sanchez, Spain’s new Socialist Party Prime Minister whose government was only sworn into office on Friday, a week after a successful motion of no-confidence against his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy, said the Aquarius would find “safe harbor” in Valencia, a port city on the country’s eastern Mediterranean coast.
Personnel from the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) aboard the Aquarius said 500 people would be transferred to two Italian coast guard vessels and 129 would remain on the original ship in order to bring the migrants, the majority of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa, to port in Spain.
Both MSF and SOS Mediterranee warned that the four-day journey from the Aquarius’ 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.
None of the migrants aboard the Aquarius, which included 120 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women, have been informed that they are to be transferred to Valencia instead of Italy.
“We have not told them that they will be brought to Spain because we are taking the necessary time to do things in a calm and correct manner,” SOS Mediterranee representative Alessandro Porro, who is on the vessel, told EFE, adding that when they do inform the passengers, they will explain the decision using maps as many were already considerably afraid by the idea of returning to Libya.
The Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, who leads the far-right League outfit in the country’s fledgling coalition government, hailed Spain’s intervention as a victory for Italy.
“Victory! 629 immigrants aboard the Aquarius ship in the direction of Spain, the first goal achieved,” he wrote on his social media.
He campaigned on a hardline anti-immigration ballot in the recent general elections and recently said he did not want Italy into a “huge refugee camp.”