Panicking migrants try to reach a rescue craft from their overcrowded raft in the central Mediterranean Sea. Picture: REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Panicking migrants try to reach a rescue craft from their overcrowded raft in the central Mediterranean Sea. Picture: REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Rome/Madrid — Spain has offered to take in a humanitarian ship stranded in international waters with 629 migrants aboard as Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.

The EU and the UN refugee agency had called for a swift end to the standoff involving the Gibraltar-flagged Aquarius, whose passengers include 11 children and seven pregnant women rescued off the coast of Libya at the weekend.

The ship had sailed north towards Italy, but Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party who became interior minister in June after vowing to curb an influx of migrants from Africa, blocked it and said it should go to Malta instead.

Malta refused, saying it had nothing to do with the rescue mission, overseen by the Italian coastguard. The tiny island nation with fewer than half a million inhabitants says it already accepts more refugees per capita than Italy, which has taken in more than 600,000 boat migrants since 2014.

"Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not," Salvini said on Facebook on Monday. "Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no."

In a possible solution to the impasse, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, a socialist who took office a week ago, gave instructions that the ship be allowed to dock in the eastern port of Valencia.

Hearing of Spain’s offer, Salvini said the standoff had been resolved thanks to the "good heart" of the Spanish but the EU could not rely on such one-off gestures to deal with migrants reaching Italy.

Speaking during a visit to earthquake-hit towns in central Italy, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte thanked Spain.

Spain’s step will raise pressure on EU partners ahead of a June 28-29 summit as Italy seeks changes to the bloc’s asylum law so that all countries share the burden of the arrivals.

"This is the big moment for Salvini to put his money where his mouth was," one EU official handling migration issues said before Spain’s offer. "Salvini will be hoping either for the migrants to be put ashore in a different EU country, or he will eventually let them land in Italy in return for concessions for Italy’s case from the EU," he said.

SOS Mediterranee, the charity co-operating the migrant ship, said it was awaiting instructions about where to disembark from Italy’s coastguard, which coordinated the sea rescues. Valencia is three days’ voyage for the Aquarius, while Italy and Malta are hours away.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was also appreciative of Spain’s move though he said migrants were an EU-wide matter.

"I thank Prime Minister Sanchez for taking in Aquarius after Italy broke international rules and caused a standoff," Muscat said. "Malta will be sending fresh supplies to the vessel. We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue."

Conte said he was due to discuss the situation further with Salvini and other Italian government ministers.

Pictures from aboard the Aquarius, which is operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders, showed hundreds of Africans huddled aboard, including a young girl wrapped in a blanket in the arms of a rescue worker.

"People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly," the UN refugee agency had said, urging governments to set aside political considerations.

"Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between states should be looked at later," UN special envoy Vincent Cochetel said.

SOS Mediterranee said the Aquarius had enough supplies to feed the migrants at least for another day.

EU law requires asylum seekers register in the first safe country they reach. But front-line countries such as Italy and Malta say the burden needs to be shared out across the bloc.

"This is not an inhumane act," Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, in charge of Italy’s ports and coast guard, said earlier with respect to Rome’s refusal to accept the migrants. "It’s common sense. We ask that all of Europe assume responsibility for such a delicate and important issue as is immigration," he said.

Not everyone in Italy agreed with Salvini’s hard line; the mayors of Naples, Palermo and Messina, said they would welcome the migrants.

Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando said Salvini was "violating international law which makes saving lives a priority".

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

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

Muscat said on Sunday he had told Conte his country would not take the ship.

"We are concerned at Italy authorities’ directions given to Aquarius on high seas. They manifestly go against international rules, and risk creating a dangerous situation for all those involved," Muscat said.

By law, it would be difficult for Italy to refuse the boat a safe haven, as its own coastguard coordinated the rescues, picking up more than 280 migrants in its own vessels before transferring them to the Aquarius to be taken to safety.

Earlier on Monday, Salvini warned that another rescue ship, the Sea Watch 3, registered in the Netherlands and operated by a German charity, might not be allowed to dock in Italy if it picked up migrants off Libya, where it was sailing.

"Malta is not acting, France rejects them and Europe does not care," Salvini wrote. "I’ve had enough."

The Sea Watch 3 did not have any migrants on board, spokesman Ruben Neugebauer said. While he agreed there should be a more fair distribution of migrants, he said Salvini was "making a point at the cost of people in distress. It’s highly irresponsible."