The UK government is under pressure to help 141 people rescued at sea by a humanitarian rescue ship that is being denied safe harbour by nearby countries.
The Aquarius, which is run by charity SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders, rescued the group, which includes 67 children and two pregnant women, from wooden boats on Friday.
The ship is now in international waters waiting to be given the go-ahead to land in the nearest European country. However, both Italy and Malta have refused it permission.
Now the Italian government, which has been led by a populist coalition since March, is calling on the UK to take responsibility for the ship because it’s flying under the Gibraltar flag.
Its transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, wrote on Twitter: “The boat is now in Maltese waters and has a Gibraltar flag. At this point, the United Kingdom should take responsibility for the shipwrecked.”
L'Ong #Aquarius è stata coordinata dalla Guardia Costiera libica in area di loro responsabilità. La nave è ora in acque maltesi e batte bandiera di Gibilterra. A questo punto il Regno Unito si assuma le sue responsabilità per la salvaguardia dei naufraghi.
— Danilo Toninelli (@DaniloToninelli) August 13, 2018
Matteo Salvini, the country’s far-right populist interior minister, also wrote: “It can go anywhere it wants, NOT in Italy.”
The new government’s closed-door policy led to more than 600 people on the same ship being stranded at sea for nine days in June before Spain’s socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez offered to let it dock in Valencia.
The Spanish government has refused to repeat the act on this occasion, insisting it is “not the safest port.”
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.”
She added that the commission is providing support to a “number of member states” to “achieve a swift resolution of the incident.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “We are deeply concerned for the welfare of 141 migrants who have been rescued from the Mediterranean by sailing vessel Aquarius.
“It is well-established that responsibility for arranging disembarkation, at a nearby safe port, is assumed by the relevant regional Maritime Rescue and Co-ordination, and in accordance with the wishes of the ship’s Master.
“The UK is committed to working with European partners long-term to tackle the shared challenge of irregular migration.”
The people on board were rescued in the Mediterranean in two search and rescue operations by Aquarius on Friday.
They first found 25 people drifting on a small wooden boat without an engine and believe they had been at sea for 36 hours.
Hours later, Aquarius 116 people, including 67 children, from what organisers called an “overcrowded wooden boat.”
SOS Mediterranee say the medical condition of those on board, 70% of whom are from Somalia and Eritrea, is stable but warned many are weak and malnourished.
The group said many reported they had been held in inhumane conditions in Libya.
“What is of utmost importance is that the survivors are brought to a place of safety without delay, where their basic needs can be met and where they can be protected from abuse,” said the group’s search and rescue coordinator, Nick Romaniuk.
Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard, reported today that the number of people entering the EU on the four main migratory routes has fallen by 18% over the last year.