Malta and Spain offer safe port to stranded migrant ship

Mark Stone, Europe correspondent

Spain and Malta have offered safe port to a rescue ship stranded in the Mediterranean with more than 600 migrants on board.

The vessel, carrying 629 rescued people, had been left stranded with only one day's supply of food after Matteo Salvini, the new Italian interior minister, reportedly refused to allow it to dock at Italian ports.

The refusal - a realisation of tough anti-immigration promises made by Italy's new government - left those on board in mortal danger and prompted a diplomatic spat over the future of migrants travelling across the Mediterranean.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has given instructions for the boat to dock in Valencia, while a Sky source close to the government in Muscat said the boat would likely dock in Malta in the coming hours.

They said Malta - closer to the boat than the day's sail to reach Valencia - would comply with international law requiring states to help a vessel in distress.

But while the offers mean immediate safety for those on board, questions remain over what will happen when similar rescue boats are refused safe port in Italy again.

Mr Salvini, whose far-right League Party's tough line on immigration won it a record number of votes in March's election, has promised to deport half a million illegal migrants from Italy.

On Sunday night he tweeted an image of himself with the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti (close my door) followed by another saying: "Everyone in Europe is doing their own business, now Italy is also raising its head. STOP the business of illegal immigration."

Sky sources said Malta did not immediately help for fear of setting a precedent, forcing the island state to continue to take rescued migrants if Italy continues to refuse them safe port.

The vessel, the Aquarius, which is operated jointly by Medecine Sans Frontiers and SOS Medeterranee, was refused a port of disembarkation by the Italian authorities despite having been told to rescue the migrants by the same co-ordination centre.

The UNHCR had said an "urgent humanitarian imperative" means the boat should be allowed to dock immediately and "broader issues" - such as who has responsibility - "looked at later".

Several local mayors in Sicily are also reported to have said that the ship can dock in their ports, defying the orders of the interior ministry, but these offers were not communicated to the charities operating the Aquarius.

Among the migrants on board are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and seven pregnant women. The crew says they have enough food for another two to three days at sea.

The migrants were rescued in several separate operations in the Mediterranean over the past 24 hours - all of which had been carried out at the request of the Italian authorities, who are now refusing disembarkation.

Speaking to Sky News, SOS Medeterranee's Nick Romaniuk said: "At 7am, the Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) called our ship to ask them to proceed to a boat in distress. Aquarius complied.

"At 3.30pm they called again to say that European Union maritime patrol aircraft had spotted 2 rubber boats and asked Aquarius to change course to carry out the rescues."

Mr Romaniuk explained: "When Aquarius arrived they launched the rescue boats. Both rubber (migrant) boats were in bad condition and one broke apart as the team was arriving. Around 40 people were in the water.

"The team stabilised the situation and bring the people to safety on Aquarius.

"After that, we conducted three transfers from Italian Coast Guard vessels and one from an Italian merchant vessel.

"All of these events were co-ordinated by the MRCC in Rome. Now there are 629 people on board and the Ministry of Interior has said Aquarius cannot disembark in Italy because the ports are 'closed'."

The Aquarius appears to have become caught in a political tussle with worrying consequences.

The Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre operates as part of the Italian Coast Guard. It is not run by the interior ministry which is now under the control of Mr Salvini with his hard line on immigration.

Within hours of being sworn in, Mr Salvini was reiterating his pledge to deport half a million illegal migrants, most of whom would have arrived on rescue vessels but then failed to claim asylum in Italy.

"The good times for illegals are over... Get ready to pack your bags," Mr Salvini said, adding that the rescue charities were "substitute people-smugglers".

The complexities and conflicting views on how to cope with the continued exodus of migrants from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, via Libya, to Europe have divided political opinion across the EU.

The rescue charities insist their role is simply to save lives and that returning people to Libya is not an option because of the dire security situation in the country.

However, critics say the presence of rescue charities in the Mediterranean encourages more migrants to attempt the crossing.

A controversial decision by the European Union to provide funding for the Libyan coast guard was supposed to improve their ability to carry out interceptions and rescues before migrants leave Libyan waters. But many migrant boats, coordinated by smugglers, are still getting through.

Between January and May this year, more than 22,500 migrants had reached European shores: 42% arrived in Italy from Libya and the remainder were divided between Greece, from Turkey (38%) and Spain, from Morocco (20%), according to then International Organisation for Migration, the UN Migration Agency.

Conditions for migrants who are either held in smuggler-run camps in Libya or sent back there from failed attempts to reach Europe are grim.