629 migrants stranded after Italy’s populists refuse to let rescue ship dock

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ROME — A ship carrying more than 600 rescued migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women, is stranded in the Mediterranean Sea after Italy’s new populist government refused permission for it to dock.

Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the anti-immigration League party, declared Sunday on Facebook that Italy was saying “no” to human trafficking.

The ship, Aquarius, is operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the SOS Mediterranee organizations.

Aquarius rescued 629 people Saturday night into Sunday morning — taking on people from two rubber vessels as well as “Italian navy ships, Italian coast guard ships and merchant vessels” in six different operations, MSF and SOS said on Twitter.

The organizations said the boat was located 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta.

The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center told Aquarius Sunday to “standby in [their] current position,” MSF tweeted.

Europe ‘minding its own private interest’

In his Facebook post on Sunday, Salvini argued that Italy was far from the only European country to adopt an unwelcoming stance on migrants.

“In the Mediterranean Sea, there are boats carrying Dutch, Spanish, Gibraltar and British flags. There are NGO’s from Spain and Germany, meanwhile there is also Malta that does not welcome anyone,” he wrote.

“There is France too, that refuses and pushes back at their border. There is Spain that protects their own borders with weapons, well, that means all of Europe is minding its own private interest.”

“Starting today Italy will commence to say NO to human trafficking, NO to the business of clandestine immigration.”

“My objective is to guarantee a peaceful life to all these people in Africa and to our children in Italy.”

MSF said earlier that Italy had reportedly asked Malta to disembark the rescued migrants there.

Malta: Situation dangerous

However, Malta’s Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security has issued a statement saying Malta is not responsible for the rescue effort coordinated by the Aquarius.

Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Twitter that he had taken a call from his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte to discuss the issue.

“Malta is in full conformity with international obligations & will not take the vessel in its ports. We will continue,where possible, carrying out individual&humanitarian emergency medical evacuations,” Muscat tweeted.

In a separate tweet he added: “We are concerned at #Italy authorities’ directions given to #Acquarius on high seas. They manifestly go against international rules, and risk creating a dangerous situation for all those involved.”

On Twitter, MSF expressed concern that “again politics are being placed above people’s lives.

“The priority must be the importance of the well being & safety of the people on board,” it said. MSF project coordinator Aloys Vimard told journalist Anelise Borges that the ship had enough food and water for two to three days.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on Twitter that the situation needed a quick resolution.

“States and actors involved should rapidly find solutions to allow migrants and refugees on board the #Aquarius to disembark safely and quickly. Hundreds of people urgently need assistance, slowing down operations puts their well being at risk,” it said.

MSF said there were 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and seven pregnant women among the migrants on board the Aquarius.

It earlier described the ship heading towards the Search and Rescue zone (SAR) off the coast of Libya after reports of multiple smaller vessels in distress.

Deadly crossing

Since the height of the crisis in 2015, governments across Europe have sought to fortify their countries’ borders. In February 2017, EU leaders outlined plans to stem the flow of migrants traveling across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, and boost the ability of the EU to send people back.

But with 3,116 deaths in 2017, the Mediterranean remained the deadliest migrant route in the world last year, despite a sharp fall in attempted crossings, according to International Organization for Migration (IOM). It said just under 70% of the 171,635 migrants who entered Europe by sea had arrived in Italy.

As of June 6, there had been an estimated 785 deaths on the route this year, the IOM said,with the majority of the 33,400 migrants and refugees arriving through Greece and Italy.

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