On Monday Italy denied safe harbor to 141 people rescued by a humanitarian ship off of Libya’s coast last week, intensifying tensions between European Union countries over members refusing respite to refugees.
The Aquarius, run by Franco-German charity SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), picked up the people in international waters between Italy and Malta as they tried to reach European shores.
“It can go where it wants, not in Italy!” far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said on Twitter on Monday, mentioning France, Germany, Britain or Malta as possible destinations.
“Stop human traffickers and their accomplices,” he wrote.
Malta said it had no legal obligation to berth the ship and Spain said its ports were not the safest destination.
Italy called on Britain to welcome the Aquarius because it was registered in Gibraltar, but the British territory on Spain’s southern coast said it should go to an Italian port.
The 141 onboard have been stranded at sea since Friday.
More than 650,000 migrants have come to Italy’s shores since 2014, and Rome has accused its EU peers of not sharing the burden of taking in those who arrive at its shores. Germany alone accepted over one million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and North African countries between 2015 and 2016, according to its Office of Immigration and Refugee Services.
In June, the Aquarius spent nine days floating in the Mediterranean with 630 migrants abroad when Italy’s Salvini previously denied the ship. A leader in the newly installed nationalist government, Salvini said that MSF and SOS were operating a “taxi service” and accused them of helping people-smugglers, charges the humanitarian organizations deny. Spain eventually welcomed them.
The European Commission says it is talking with several EU states as a possible candidate to take in the travelers. Britain could theoretically be considered as a destination port authorities say it’s not practical to bring the ship there.
Malta rejected any suggestion the Aquarius should dock in its ports, saying the latest rescue was made closer to Italy than to its own shores.
“Malta was neither the coordinating nor the competent authority (and) …the requests for the vessel to enter our ports are unwarranted and without legal standing,” it said in a statement.
Earlier on Monday, Malta’s armed forces rescued 114 migrants from a rubber dinghy taking on water 53 nautical miles (100 km) south of Malta and brought them back to the island.
The ship’s search and rescue coordinator Nick Romaniuk said some migrants on board were sick and wounded and “need to be disembarked as soon as possible” for proper medical care.
Due to pressure from Italy and Malta, most rescue vessels are no longer patrolling off the coast of Libya.