Spain to accept disputed migrant ship Aquarius

(BBC) – Spain’s prime minister has said the country will take in a rescue ship stranded in the Mediterranean, to help avoid a humanitarian disaster.

Pedro Sánchez said he would give “safe harbour” to the Aquarius and the 629 people on board, after Italy and Malta both refused to let the ship dock.

The UN refugee agency and the EU had both called for a swift end to the stand-off between the two countries.

Mr Sánchez, who took office a week ago, said the ship would dock in Valencia.

The migrants aboard the Aquarius were picked up from inflatable boats off the coast of Libya at the weekend, in six different rescue operations, according to the NGO SOS Méditerranée.

“It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations,” Mr Sanchez’s office said.

Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted his gratitude to Spain, saying Italy had broken international rules and caused a standoff.

He said Malta would be sending fresh supplies to the vessel, adding: “We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue.”

Who is on board the ship?

Those saved include 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 younger children and seven pregnant women, SOS Méditerranée said.

The minors are aged between 13 and 17 and come from Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan, according to a journalist on the ship, Anelise Borges.

“Most of them are sleeping outside. They are obviously exhausted, they have been exposed to the elements, they have been at sea for 20 to 30 hours prior to their rescue,” she told the BBC.

“They are fragile and we have yet to learn what’s going to happen to them,” she added.

Why did Italy reject the ship?

Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused to let the ship in, saying: “Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not.”

“Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying – this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO,” he wrote on Twitter, with the hashtag #closethedoors.

Mr Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, promised during Italy’s recent general election to take a tough stance against migration.