Spain: We'll Take Migrants From Drifting Ship Aquarius That Italy, Malta Rejected

629 migrants on ship in limbo after Italy Malta refusal

Twitter/@MSF_Sea via CNN

Italy and Malta dug in for a second day Monday and refused to let a rescue ship with 629 people aboard dock in their ports, leaving the migrants at sea as a diplomatic standoff escalated under Italy's new anti-immigrant government.

Aquarius rescued 629 people Saturday night into Sunday morning - taking on people from two rubber vessels as well as "Italian navy ships, Italian coast guard ships and merchant vessels" in six different operations, MSF and SOS said on Twitter.

The move by Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who is also head of the far-right League, represents an opening gambit to make good on his electoral promises to halt the flow of migrants into the country. Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, in office for little more than a week, said the boat would be admitted to his country.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau offered her city's help while criticising other Europeans, saying the crisis over the Aquarius "puts in question" the unity of the EU.

They were taken on board its ship Aquarius, which is now between Malta and Sicily.

"Our only objective is the disembarkation in a port of safety of the people that we rescued yesterday in hard conditions", it said, adding that it "took good note" of the Italian Interior Ministry's statements.

Survivors rescued from the Mediterranean by the Aquarius, which is operated by the Medecins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee charities.

Malta, for its part, has consistently refused to take in migrants, citing its small size and limited capacities.

Matteo Salvini, Italy's Interior Minister and Northern League party leader chose to refuse docking to "Aquarius" and redirect the vessel to the Island of Malta, apparently in line with his election promises.

The 77-metre ship, the Aquarius, was effectively stranded on Monday in global waters in the Mediterranean, between Sicily and Malta, while its captain tried to find a secure port.

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Italy, which has a new, anti-immigration government, suggested that Malta take in the migrants.

The closing of Italy's ports to Aquarius represented the first test of the populist government's rhetoric, and Italy stood firm, despite outcry from the European Union and the United Nations.

Like Malta, Italy didn't appear to be budging.

Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat accused Italy of violating worldwide norms governing sea rescues and said its stance risked "creating a unsafe situation for all those involved".

However, it is now unclear whether such a move is possible as the Aquarius is obliged to obey the commands of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC), an arm of the government-controlled Italian Coast Guard.

At the same time, the new Italian government saw revolt among their own ranks as several mayors from the parties now out of power criticized them for the decision. "Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying, this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO", he wrote on Twitter followed by the hashtag #closethedoors.

It also said it requested help from the coastguard in Malta to send boats to aid the rescue mission but Malta refused.

But with 3,116 deaths in 2017, the Mediterranean remained the deadliest migrant route in the world past year, according to the IOM.

More than 550,000 migrants have arrived in Italy between June 2014 and June 2017.

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