Italy refuses safe harbour to charity ship carrying migrants

Migrants picked up the Doctors Without Borders Sea boat the Aquarius. 141 were rescued and are now being refused permission to dock in Italy and Malta. Pic Guglielmo Mangiapane SOS Mediterranee

Image Italy and Malta have stopped the Aquarius docking. Pic Guglielmo Mangiapane SOS Mediterranee

The operators of the migrant ship Aquarius yesterday called on Europe to find a safe haven for 141 people it rescued in the Mediterranean, saying Italy and Malta had again refused to let the vessel dock.

"It can go where it wants, not in Italy!" far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said, while mentioning France, Germany, Britain or Malta as destinations for the ship.

In addition, those rescued reported that five ships had come into their vicinity before the Aquarius and did not offer help.

Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who oversees ports and the coast guard, said the ship's flag country, which is Gibraltar, should take responsibility.

A European Commission spokeswoman said there "could be a case for a flag state to be responsible" for the ship but cautioned that it "may not be practically feasible".

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She added: "We are now in contact with a number of member states and stand ready to lend our full and swift diplomatic support to resolve this situation".

The Aquarius, which was left stranded with 630 migrants on board in June after being turned away by Rome and Valletta, resumed rescue operations off the Libyan coast last week.

In a statement the Maltese government said the rescue made by the Aquarius took place off the Libyan coast, closer to Libya, Tunisia and Italy (Lampedusa) in an operation which was coordinated by the Libyan authorities.

According to the NGOs, 70 per cent of the migrants hail from Somalia and Eritrea and "many" are "extremely weak and malnourished" and "report that they were held in inhumane conditions in Libya".

Malta has also rejected letting the ship dock.

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The Aquarius, rented by the SOS Mediterranee NGO and managed in partnership with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), was at the centre of global spat in June when Italy and Malta both refused to lot it dock.

Although arrivals in Italy of rescued migrants smuggled from Libya have sharply dropped off this year compared with previous years, some 600,000 reached Italian ports in the past few years. Malta says it can't handle large numbers of migrants.

The Aquarius' search and rescue coordinator Nick Romaniuk said some migrants on board were sick and wounded and "need to be disembarked as soon as possible" for proper medical care.

Though departures from Libya have fallen dramatically this year, people smugglers are still pushing some boats out to sea and an estimated 720 people died in June and July when charity ships were mainly absent, Amnesty International estimates.

European Union border agency Frontex said on Monday it counted 73,500 "irregular border crossings" into the bloc so far this year via the sea and the Western Balkans route, more than 40 percent fewer than in the first seven months of 2017.

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