The Spanish migrant rescue NGO ship Open Arms is seen off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, August 17 2019. Picture: ALESSANDRO SERRANO / AFP
The Spanish migrant rescue NGO ship Open Arms is seen off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, August 17 2019. Picture: ALESSANDRO SERRANO / AFP

Madrid — Spain on Monday stepped up criticism of Italian deputy premier Matteo Salvini’s refusal to allow 107 migrants on board a charity vessel to disembark at an Italian port, calling it “a disgrace to humanity”.

The Open Arms has been anchored since Thursday within swimming distance of Lampedusa island.

Some have been on board the boat operated by Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms for 18 days, putting them on track to surpass the record of 19 days which 32 migrants spent stranded on another charity rescue ship, the Sea-Watch 3, in January.

Six European Union countries — France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg — have offered to take in the migrants aboard the Open arms boat.

But far-right Salvini, who has plunged the Italian government into crisis by calling for fresh elections, has refused to allow migrant rescue vessels to dock as part of his hardline policies.

“What Salvini is doing in relationship with the Open Arms is a disgrace to humanity as a whole,” Spain’s defence minister Margarita Robles told reporters in Madrid.

Salvini was “putting human lives at risk” for “exclusively electoral purposes”, she said.

Too far

Spain said late Sunday the ship could dock in Mallorca in the Balearic Islands after Spanish Proactiva Open Arms rejected an initial offer to go to the southwestern port of Algeciras because it was too far.

But the charity said Monday that this second offer of Mallorca was “totally incomprehensible”.

“While our boat is 800m off the coast of Lampedusa, European states are asking a small NGO like ours to face… three days of sailing in harsh weather conditions,” it said.

The Balearic Islands lie 1,000km west of Lampedusa.

In an interview with online newspaper, Open Arms founder Oscar Camps suggested Madrid could send a faster boat to pick up the migrants or fly them from Lampedusa to Spain.

“It is urgent to end this inhumane and unacceptable situation which the people who we rescued at sea are living,” Open Arms said in a statement.

The Spanish government denied the existence of an agreement with Italy and said it had not received a “clear and direct reply” from the NGO to its Mallorca offer.

“It is not a question of accepting or not accepting” the offer, an Open Arms spokeswoman said.

“The answer we gave them is that we cannot guarantee the safety of these people on our boat. Since Italy and Spain have assumed responsibility for these people, they should find a solution.”

Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli on Sunday offered the Open Arms a coastguard escort to Spain.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, on Monday welcomed Spain’s “goodwill” but urged “all member states and NGOs to cooperate and find a solution which will allow the people on board the Open Arms to disembark as soon as possible”.

Salvini argues Italy bears an unfair burden as the first port of call for the rescued migrants and it is up to EU partners to do their part to resolve the crisis.

Spain’s deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo said Italy has closed its port to the Open Arms in a “totally illegal and incomprehensible way” but she also criticised the NGO for not accepting Madrid’s permission to dock.

“We offered them everything because we don’t want these lives to be in danger any longer,” she told news radio Cadena Ser.

Salvini on Saturday reluctantly agreed to let 27 migrant children from the Open Arms disembark.

“Why doesn’t the Open Arms go to Spain? In 18 days they could have gone and returned three times to Ibiza and Formentera. They are carrying out a political battle,” he said on Twitter.

Over the past 18 days, 479 migrants arrived on Italy’s shores, more than 100 of them on Lampedusa, according to the interior ministry.