Spain to take in 629 migrants stranded at sea after Italy refuses

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Madrid says rescue ship can dock at Valencia after Italian government turned it away

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Spain has agreed to take in 629 migrants stranded on a rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea after Italy’s new government denied the vessel access to its ports in a bid to force a European reckoning over the migration situation.

The move by Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s new socialist prime minister, to allow the migrants to disembark in Valencia looked set to defuse a humanitarian emergency. The UN refugee agency had warned that people on board were “in distress” and “running out of provisions”.

The Aquarius had been sailing north towards Italy on Sunday when Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the far-right League, demanded that nearby Malta allow the migrants to land there instead.

Maltese officials refused, leaving the migrants in limbo on board the vessel, which is operated by SOS Méditerranée, a French NGO. The passengers included more than 100 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.

Mr Salvini’s decision to stop the Aquarius from docking — which was quickly followed by a similar warning on Monday to the Sea Watch 3, another rescue boat in the Mediterranean — is the first tangible sign of the harsher line on migration adopted by Italy’s new government.

I don’t believe there is any European country that would want 600 deaths on its hands

EU official
The populist alliance in Rome, made up of Mr Salvini’s League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has said it will crack down on illegal immigrants in Italy and promised to be more confrontational with Brussels and other EU member states on the issue.

Over the past four years, Italy has taken in nearly 640,000 migrants, mostly fleeing poverty and war in the Middle East and Africa. Efforts to share the cost and effort of that operation with other EU member states have fallen flat as anti-immigrant sentiment has swept the continent.

“A European debate needs to be opened up quickly,” Danilo Toninelli, Italy’s transport minister from Five Star, said in a blog post on Monday.

Mr Salvini claimed victory almost immediately after Spain’s announcement. “It is a sign that something is changing,” he said.

In a tweet, Joseph Muscat, the Maltese prime minister, thanked Spain for its gesture and attacked Italy for the stand-off. “We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue,” he said.

One EU official confronting the incident on Monday acknowledged it was a “political situation”, saying European and international laws did not make clear which country should receive the ship.

“It’s not a question of European law but it is a European question. We are not washing our hands of it,” said the official, adding that Dimitris Avramopoulos, migration commissioner, had been in touch with Malta’s interior minister and was seeking to speak to Mr Salvini.

“I don’t believe there is any European country that would want 600 deaths on its hands,” the official said.

Meanwhile, Italy’s decision to close its ports to such migrants — after years in which it was hailed as an example of generosity and solidarity — triggered a sharp backlash from the mayors of some of its own largest port cities.

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