MADRID/ROME (Reuters) – A Spanish charity operating a migrant rescue ship stranded off the coast of Italy has rejected an offer from Spain to dock in Algeciras, citing the urgency of the emergency situation faced by the more than 100 people on board.
Minors who were among migrants stranded on the Spanish migrant rescue ship Open Arms are pictured before disembarking from an Italian Finance Police boat, in Lampedusa, Italy August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane
The migrants, most of whom are African, were picked up by the Open Arms boat off the coast of Libya in the past two weeks and have been waiting to disembark on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has ordered his officials not to let them disembark, though he made a partial concession on Saturday by allowing 27 minors to leave the boat, saying he had only agreed to this at the insistence of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Charity rescue boats have largely disappeared from the Mediterranean over the past year because of tighter government controls and lengthy offshore stand-offs.
“Spain always acts on humanitarian emergencies. It is necessary to establish an orderly and supportive European solution, leading the migration challenge with the EU’s values of progress and humanism,” Spain’s acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez said on Twitter.
However, Open Arms said on Sunday that it could not go to Spain, arguing that it would be a long trip that would put the wellbeing of the migrants at risk.
“We are in a state of extreme humanitarian emergency. What they need is to be disembarked now,” an Open Arms spokeswoman said. “It is unthinkable to navigate for six days; that is what it would takes for us to arrive at Algeciras.”
The director and founder of the non-governmental organization (NGO), Oscar Camps, said on Twitter that the situation on board was unsustainable.
France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg this week said they would help to relocate the migrants. That scheme would take place once the migrants disembark in Algeciras, the Spanish government said in a statement.
It also criticized the “inconceivable response of Italian authorities”, especially Salvini’s.
Before Open Arms’ rejection of Spain’s offer, Salvini said on Facebook that the Spanish government decision vindicated his hard-line stance.
“Those who stick it out are the ones who win,” he said, adding that any other minister would probably “have given in”.
Salvini renewed his attacks on Open Arms, accusing it of lying about the condition of the migrants. He said a medical inspection on the boat by Italian authorities on Saturday had shown there was no sanitary emergency on board.
“They tell us to let the sick off the boat and they turn out not to be sick; they say let the minors off and a lot of them turn out not to be minors; we check the medical emergency and there is no emergency,” he said.
“There are presumed minors and presumed refugees fleeing from presumed wars.”
Open Arms said that a few migrants had jumped off the boat. It posted a video on Twitter of what it said were migrants from the boat trying to swim to shore before being caught by rescuers who jumped in after them.
“We have been warning for days, there is a limit to people’s desperation,” Camps said on Twitter. “What more does Matteo Salvini need for his political campaign – deaths?”
Salvini, leader of the ruling League party, has built his popularity on a vigorous campaign against illegal immigration.
He issued a statement on Saturday reiterating that Open Arms could have taken the migrants to Spain and that the NGO was to blame for their plight.
Reporting by Gavin Jones and Joan Faus; Editing by David Goodman and Mark Potter