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(BBC) Stranded migrants: Macron scolds Italy over Aquarius ship

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Stranded migrants: Macron scolds Italy over Aquarius ship

The immigrants rescued by the Aquarius will be taken to Valencia in Spain.The immigrants rescued by the Aquarius will be taken to Valencia in Spain. OSCAR CORRAL EFE

French President Emmanuel Macron has accused the Italian government of "cynicism and irresponsibility" for refusing to let a stranded rescue ship packed with migrants dock in Italy.

A charity looking after the 629 migrants on the Aquarius, stranded off Malta, says two Italian ships will help take them to Spain's port of Valencia.

But Spain is at least three days' sailing away. Mr Macron said Italy was "playing politics" with the migrants.

They were picked up off Libya's coast.

The migrants, mainly sub-Saharan Africans, were found in inflatable boats at the weekend. They are now being looked after by Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Franco-German charity SOS Méditerranée aboard the Aquarius.

Map showing Aquarius position in Mediterranean

Mr Macron's spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the French president recalled that "in cases of distress, those with the nearest coastline have a responsibility to respond".

"There is a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government's behaviour," he quoted President Macron as saying.

Most migrants who survive the perilous voyages from North Africa end up in overcrowded Italian camps, and Italy says its EU partners must ease the burden.

The plan is for the Aquarius to be joined by an Italian coastguard ship and a warship, which will take on board most of the migrants. Then all three vessels will head for Valencia.

SOS Méditerranée tweeted photos of fresh supplies arriving on board on Tuesday.

🔴 UPDATE 09h39: #Aquarius received confirmation: Port of Safety is #Valencia, #Spain. Teams relieved that solution starts to be found. However, results are unnecessary prolongation of time at sea for already vulnerable people & reduction of SAR capacity. Supplies now on board.

Earlier the crew said the ship could not sail to Spain while it was overcrowded, and conditions at sea were deteriorating.

Among the migrants are seven pregnant women, 11 young children and 123 unaccompanied minors.

The minors are aged between 13 and 17 and come from Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan, according to a journalist on the ship, Anelise Borges.

Fifteen migrants have serious chemical burns and several suffered hypothermia, according to MSF.

Aquarius, 6 May 18AFP/The Aquarius is operated by SOS Méditerranée and Doctors without Borders (MSF)

Italy defiant

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio shrugged off the French criticism. "I'm glad the French have discovered responsibility: if they want, we will help them," he said. "Let them open their ports and we will transfer a few of the people to France."

Earlier, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called Spain's offer to take in the migrants a "victory" for his government's hardline immigration policy.

Refusing to let the ship in, he said: "Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not." Instead he urged Malta to let the Aquarius dock.

His right-wing League party is in a new populist government which has pledged to stop the migrant influx to Italy and deport failed asylum seekers.

The Italian coastguard ship Dattilo and a warship are expected to take migrants on board from the Aquarius in the coming hours. There are medics and UN Children's Fund (Unicef) workers on the Dattilo.

Meanwhile, another coastguard ship, the Diciotti, is taking 937 migrants to the Sicilian port of Catania. They were picked up not by charities but by the EU naval rescue mission off Libya.

Migrant arrivals graphic, 2018

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who took office a week ago, said he would give "safe harbour" to the Aquarius, after Italy and Malta had refused.

The nationalist authorities on the French island of Corsica also offered to receive the Aquarius, before the latest plan involving Italian ships was announced.

Aid worker Aloys Vimard, also on board, told the BBC the migrants were afraid they would be returned to Libya.

Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted his gratitude to Spain, saying Italy had broken international rules and caused the standoff.

Chart showing the country of origin for migrants arriving in Italy in a period in 2017 compared to 2018

What is the law on accepting ships?

Rules on disembarking and assisting rescue ships such as Aquarius are governed by international law.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea dictates that any ship learning of distress at sea must assist regardless of the circumstances.

It says that the country responsible for operations in that area has primary responsibility for taking them from the ship.

It also clearly states that the relevant government "shall arrange for such disembarkation to be effected as soon as reasonably practicable".

A big question for Spain: What happens to the next ship?

By Kevin Connolly, Europe correspondent, BBC News

The EU wrote its rules about how migrants should be handled in the 1990s, when no-one could have imagined the collapse of Libya would create huge flows of desperate people heading across the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

The rules say migrants are the responsibility of the first member state where they land - an overwhelming problem in countries like Greece and Italy, where the election of a populist government is at least in part a response to the pressure.

And when Matteo Salvini proclaims "victory", he's telling his voters that the promise of a tougher line on immigration is real.

He is challenging the EU to find a proper solution too, based on forcing other member states to accept quotas of migrants - something it has failed to do so far. And he's incidentally created a big question for Spain. Will its offer to the Aquarius be extended to more ships in the future?


Italian military ships to escort ‘Aquarius’ to Spanish port of Valencia

Decision to make 1,300-km journey with 629 people on board the migrant rescue vessel, some of whom need medical attention, follows a night of negotiations


On board the ‘Aquarius’ 12 JUN 2018 - 10:42 CEST

Barco AquariusA rescue worker with a baby on the Aquarius. ÓSCAR CORRAL

The 629 migrants who were rescued on Saturday night off the coast of Libya and denied entry into Italy and Malta will be taken to Spain’s eastern port of Valencia, said an official with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) at around 6am on Tuesday.

Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE), had offered to take in the immigrants on Monday following Italy and Malta’s refusal to let the rescue ship Aquarius dock in either country.

But concerns about the long voyage – around 1,300 kilometers (700 nautical miles) from its current position – and about the health conditions of several migrants had delayed the decision.

Early on Tuesday morning, the coordinator for the non-profit aid group Doctors Without Borders, which has staff aboard the Aquarius, confirmed that the journey to Spain will go ahead.

The Aquarius will carry around 100 immigrants to their new destination, while the rest will be transferred to two additional vessels from Italy’s Coast Guard and Navy. Italian authorities were expected to deliver supplies to the rescue ship on Tuesday morning.

The early morning decision follows a night of extended negotiations through the Rescue Coordination Center in Rome, which handles all rescues and migrant arrivals.

Late on Monday, the Aquarius’s rescue coordinator, Nicola Stalla, had said that it would be impossible for the entire group of migrants to make the journey to Valencia on board the rescue ship, as it would mean sleeping out in the open in deteriorating weather conditions. The group includes seven pregnant women, 123 unaccompanied minors and people suffering from burns caused from a mixture of seawater and fuel.

The Valencia option was satisfactory for Italy, whose new populist government has taken a hard stand against immigration. As soon as the decision was made, Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing, anti-immigration League, sent out a message on Twitter: “VICTORY! 629 immigrants aboard the ship Aquarius headed for Spain, primary goal achieved!”

The mood on board the Aquarius remains calm for now, but there is a growing undercurrent of tension. Although none of the migrants are in critical condition, many of them are ill, and seven women are pregnant. All of them recently left Libya, where conditions for sub-Saharan migrants could best be described as hellish.

Everyone is exhausted, and the daily fight for a sleeping spot on deck is creating friction among this large group of people stuck together in a reduced space: the Aquarius is 77 meters long and made for holding no more than 550 migrants for two to three days.

The Aquarius is one of the few remaining non-profit rescue ships left in the central Mediterranean, where so far this year 784 migrants have drowned during the crossing, according to figures from the United Nations Refugee Agency.

On Friday of last week, it was the first vessel to reach the coast of Libya after a new populist and openly anti-immigrant government had taken office in Italy. By early Saturday morning, the Aquarius had rescued 229 migrants at risk of drowning after one of their rubber dinghies collapsed. The other 400 were transferred onboard after being saved by Italian military and merchant ships in the vicinity.

English version by Susana Urra.

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