Italy has called on the UK to take in 141 people stranded on a migrant rescue ship in the Mediterranean.
The country’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli – a member of the populist Five Star Movement, part of the ruling coalition – urged the British government to “assume its responsibility” for rescued people on the Aquarius, because the vessel is sailing under the flag of the British territory of Gibraltar.
The Aquarius, which is operated by the French charities Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée, has been refused permission to dock by authorities in Italy and Malta. MSF announced on Monday that the vessel was midway between the countries and was awaiting further guidance.
Under its populist coalition government, which also includes the far-right League, Italy has closed its ports to ships run by aid organisations, a policy that resulted in 630 migrants on the same vessel being left to drift at sea for one week in June, until Spain granted permission to dock in Valencia.
Most of the recently rescued migrants are from Somalia and Eritrea and there are at least 67 unaccompanied minors. “The 141 rescued people are safe onboard the Aquarius, and the situation is calm,” said an SOS Méditerranée spokeswoman. “There are no medical emergencies, but there are two pregnant women and most are weak and exhausted from the arduous journey.”
She said the vessel was sailing under a Gibraltar flag, a decision that had been made by the shipping company, not the NGOs.
Many of the people onboard the Aquarius told the charities they had been held in inhumane conditions in Libya.
Aloys Vimard, MSF’s project coordinator onboard Aquarius, accused European governments of propping up Libya’s joint rescue cooperation centre, while being unable to organise their own rescue efforts. “A rescue is not complete until there is disembarkation in a place of safety,” he said.
MSF said the migrants had encountered five ships before they were rescued by the Aquarius last Friday. “It seems the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea is now at stake. Ships might be unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded and denied a place of safety,” Vimard said.
The European commission said it was in touch with a number of EU member states about the ship, while declining to name countries. “It could of course be the case that in theory a flag state of a rescue ship could be considered a potential location for disembarkation, but this might not be possible in practice,” a spokeswoman said. “As we have done in a number of previous cases, we stand ready to lend full diplomatic support and weight to a swift solution of the incident.”
The UK Foreign Office has been contacted for a response.
The plight of the migrants reveals the ongoing tensions in the EU over how to manage people fleeing conflict or persecution, or seeking a new life in Europe.
But this is the first time Theresa May’s government has faced such a direct demand from another EU member state to act.
The UK, which has the right to opt out of large parts of EU border and migration policy, did not take part in Europe’s controversial relocation programme, which required other member states to give shelter to a fixed quota of refugees, from Greece and Italy.
The British government prefers to resettle refugees to the UK from non-EU countries neighbouring conflict zones, a policy that means it gets fewer asylum applications than Germany, Italy, Greece and France.
The UK has chosen to opt into European asylum rules in previous years, because it benefits from being able to send asylum seekers back to their first country of arrival in the EU.
Britain did not take part in an emergency summit in June, at which 16 countries traded ideas on how to manage arrivals while keeping intact the EU’s Schengen border-free travel zone. The UK prime minister, however, was present at all-night talks a few days later where EU leaders concocted a hasty plan for “controlled centres” on EU soil to assess the asylum claims of Mediterranean migrants. So far, no country has agreed to set up this kind of centre for assessing asylum claims.
While the British government has so far managed to stay above the fray on this divisive issue, May hopes to stay close to EU migration policy after Brexit. A policy paper published by the Department for Exiting the EU in 2017 described migration as one of the greatest challenges that Europe faces and pledged that the UK will continue its strategic cooperation with the EU on external migration.