The Open Arms vessel has been anchored off Lampedusa since last week
Madrid (AFP) - A charity vessel carrying 107 rescued migrants and stuck in limbo off Italy on Sunday rejected an offer to go to Spain as “absolutely unrealistic” because of the “humanitarian emergency” on board.
Spain had offered to take in the Proactiva Open Arms ship anchored off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, slamming Italy’s “inconceivable” refusal to allow it to dock after 17 days at sea.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, has refused to allow migrant rescue vessels to dock as part of his hardline policies.
Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza said it was “absolutely unrealistic” to spend five days going to the port that Spain had offered, Algeciras, near Gibraltar.
Late Sunday, government sources in Madrid told AFP that the ship could go to “the closest Spanish port en route to (Spain’s) territorial waters”, which could be the Balearic Islands.
The sources said they had not yet received an answer from the charity.
The Open Arms standoff with Italian authorities was the latest between Rome and charity vessels rescuing migrants – mainly sub-Saharan Africans – making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
The Open Arms organisation said Madrid had taken the decision because of the “untenable” situation for the 107 migrants still aboard, including two children.
Salvini, who leads the anti-immigrant League party, has taken a hardline against rescued migrants coming to Italy which he says bears an unfair burden as the first port of call.
Riding high on his policy’s popularity, Salvini has plunged the Italian government into crisis by calling for fresh elections and to bring down his League party’s coaltion with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).
- EU splits -
EU states disagree on how to handle the migrants crossing the Mediterranean and some like Italy are taking a tougher position, turning away rescue ships as they seek to dock to drop off rescued people.
Italy’s Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli on Sunday offered the Open Arms a coastguard escort to Spain which he thanked for their offer to take the boat “even if too many days late.”
Toninelli, a member of Salvini’s former coalition partner M5S, accused European Union countries of “leaving Italy alone to manage the migration phenomenon, which, in fact, concerns all of Europe,”
France said on Sunday it would take 40 of the migrants on board the Open Arms as long as they meet the criteria to be treated as refugees.
Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg have also agreed to take in the migrants once they reach land.
Italy has taken in 27 unaccompanied migrant children from the vessel but demanded the rest stay on the ship
Salvini on Saturday reluctantly agreed to let 27 migrant children from the Open Arms disembark but it required that the rest stay aboard.
The Open Arms has been anchored since Thursday within swimming distance of Lampedusa and crew say the situation on board is critical after two weeks at sea.
Open Arms founder Oscar Camps on Sunday published a video showing four migrants jumping off the ship in a desperate bid to swim ashore before they were stopped and brought back.
The UN migrant agency (IOM) says at least 840 people have gone missing so far this year trying to cross from Libya to Europe.
Only a few civilian rescue vessels are still operating in the Mediterranean as they say they face increasingly hostile reactions at European ports.
Another humanitarian ship, the Ocean Viking, is holding its position between Lampedusa and Malta waiting for a safe port for the 356 rescued migrants on board.
The first rescue by the ship, operated by Doctors Without Border (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee, was 10 days ago, and some of those rescued had already spent days at sea in tiny boats.
“We are doing the best we can for this many people for this long,” Jay Berger, MSF coordinator on board, told AFP, with no idea how long the wait will be.
“You can’t even say a week or two weeks or even three days, you keep saying to them ‘I don’t know’.”