Stranded ship with 629 refugees to be taken to Valencia
Two Italian ships will escort the rescue boat to Spain
Hundreds of refugees stranded on board the Aquarius rescue ship will be transferred to Spain, the French NGO SOS Mediterranée confirmed on Tuesday. After refusing to allow the vessel to dock, Italy offered two military ships to escort the rescue boat into the port of Valencia.
In total, 629 people were saved by the charity’s boat on Saturday. In response to Italy’s refusal to accept the migrants, Spain’s new president Pedro Sánchez offered Valencia as a safe port. Catalan president Quim Torra subsequently offered to host the migrants.
"We reiterate the offer made in March 2016 by president Carles Puigdemont. We are prepared to receive 1,800 refugees”
Quim Torra · Catalan president
At first, the charity stressed that reaching Spain “would require several days of sailing,” and warned that “with so many people on board under deteriorating weather conditions things could become critical.” The NGO Doctors Without Borders also deemed the ship’s passage to Valencia as “unsafe.” SOS Mediterranée eventually confirmed that the ship would travel to Valencia with the support of the Italian ships.
The standoff started when Italian Home Affairs Minister, far-right Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, said the country would not take any more migrants and urged Malta to allow the 'Aquarius' to dock at the island. After Malta refused, and with the European Union and the United Nations asking both European countries to end the stand-off, Sánchez stepped in and offered the Valencian port instead.
🔴 UPDATE 09h39: #Aquarius received confirmation: Port of Safety is #Valencia, #Spain. Teams relieved that solution starts to be found. However, results are unnecessary prolongation of time at sea for already vulnerable people & reduction of SAR capacity. Supplies now on board. pic.twitter.com/XnqDcS1JnQ— SOS MEDITERRANEE GER (@SOSMedGermany) June 12, 2018
Some hours later, the Catalan president announced his offer on Twitter. "We reiterate the offer made in March 2016 by president Carles Puigdemont. We are prepared to receive 1,800 refugees,” he wrote, including the 600 refugees on the 'Aquarius' ship in this number.
Barcelona mayor Ada Colau welcomed Sánchez’s decision after having offered the Catalan capital as a safe haven, and she urged the new Spanish president to “revert the anti-human policies of [Spain’s former ruling] People’s Party (PP).”
The general coordinator of PP, Fernando Martínez-Maillo, called Sánchez’s decision “dangerous,” as he said it sent the message that there was an easy way into Spain for illegal migrants. “This is a problem concerning the EU which we should solve at the EU level, and not with the initiative of a single country,” he said in an interview on Spain’s public TV. The leader of PP in Catalonia, Xavier García Albiol, criticized Italy and welcomed Sánchez's initiative, but said that "Spain can't become an NGO where everyone is welcome."
Catalan NGO saw it coming
The founder of Catalan NGO Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps, said in a radio interview on Tuesday that Italy's decision doesn't come as a surprise to him. He explained that animosity towards refugee rescue ships had already started before the new government was elected.
Last April, the NGO's rescue ship was ordered blocked by a local prosecutor in Pozzallo, Sicily, over allegations of fostering illegal immigration and criminal association. The investigation against crew members started following a rescue operation in which 216 people were saved from drowning in the Mediterranean.
After spending a month docked in Italy, the ship needed to undergo some repairs before being used for further sea rescue operations. Camps said that Catalan football coach Pep Guardiola contributed by paying 150,000 euros.