Migrant rescue vessel caught in political spat.
Italy’s Matteo Salvini shuts ports to migrant rescue ship
A rescue ship carrying 629 migrants is stranded in the Mediterranean after Italy’s new interior minister refused permission for it to dock.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, promised during Italy’s recent general election to take a tough stance against migration.
He says Malta should accept the Aquarius, but it refused, arguing that it falls under Italy’s jurisdiction.
Italy is the main entry for migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe.
German charity SOS Méditerranée says the ship has been instructed by the Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre to stand by in its current position, 35 nautical miles (65km) from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta.
It says the migrants, many of whom are children, were picked up in six different rescue operations off Libya’s coast.
Who is on the ship?
There are more than 600 people on board the Aquarius, and the majority were rescued by the Italian authorities.
Among those saved are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 younger children and seven pregnant women, SOS Méditerranée says.
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.
“Most of them are sleeping outside. They are obviously exhausted, they have been exposed to the elements, they have been at sea for twenty to thirty hours prior to their rescue,” she told the BBC.
“They are fragile and we have yet to learn what’s going to happen to them,” she added.
What is the law?
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”.
Given that the migrants were rescued off the coast of Libya, the closest ports are likely to be either Sicily in Italy or Malta, which is why there is a stand-off between the two countries.
As interior minister, Mr Salvini is a key figure in Italy’s new populist government and he has promised to take a tough stance on migration.
The government is made up of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League, which is strongly anti-immigration.
Both parties insist that half a million undocumented migrants in Italy must be deported “as a priority”.
But critics say its plan to repatriate these migrants is unworkable.
Earlier this month, Mr Salvini said during a visit to the Sicily that it must stop being “the refugee camp of Europe”.
He also says he is considering action against organisations rescuing migrants at sea. He has previously accused them of being in cahoots with people-smugglers.
On Sunday, he said that Italy was saying “no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration”.
“Malta takes in nobody,” he added. “France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons.”
A spokesman for the Maltese government told AFP news agency Malta was “neither the co-ordinating nor the competent authority” in the rescue operation.
The government insists it has adhered to all its obligations regarding immigration.