Migrant boat on standby as Italy asks the UK to take it in

Italy has called on the United Kingdom to take in 141 migrants aboard a charity-run rescue boat in the Mediterranean, two days after denying safe harbour to the Gibraltar-flagged vessel.

The Aquarius, run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), picked up the people in two separate operations on Friday and is now in international waters between Italy and Malta.

On Monday, Italy’s Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli urged the British government to “assume its responsibility” for the people on board, including dozens of unaccompanied minors.

“The boat is now in Maltese waters and has a Gibraltar flag. At this point, the United Kingdom should take responsibility for the safeguarding of the shipwrecked,” Toninelli said on Twitter.

Malta said on Saturday it would not welcome the ship either.

“Malta was neither the coordinating nor the competent authority … and therefore has no legal obligation to make the arrangements to provide for a place of safety,” the government said in a statement.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also one of the country’s two deputy prime ministers, also took to Twitter on Monday to say that the Aquarius “can go wherever it wants, [but] not to Italy”.

The Aquarius,  one of the last two NGO vessels still operating in the central Mediterranean.  was the first charity ship to be turned away from Italian ports in early June, before being taken in by Spain.

On Monday, sources at the Spanish prime minister’s office said that the country’s ports were not the safest destination for the vessel, according to local media.

However, Jason Rizzo, MSF coordinator, told Al Jazeera that the organisation had not received any official statement by Spain.

“Our teams have seen the reports, but we have not received yet any formal response from Spain,” he said on Monday.

In an online blog earlier in the day, MSF said its crew reported that the vessel was standing by at 60km from European shores, with 141 people, including 67 unaccompanied minors, two children under the age of five and two pregnant women.

And even though the different teams are calling for all European governments to help with this rescue, “the preferred option is to receive a place that is much closer, so that the boat could disembark quickly”, and then aid could be provided to people that require humanitarian assistance, Rizzo explained. 

External pressure 

Due to pressure from Italy and Malta, most charity ships are no longer patrolling off the coast of Libya.

Though departures from Libya have fallen dramatically this year, people smugglers are still pushing some boats out to sea.

An estimated 720 people died in June and July when charity ships were mainly absent, Amnesty International estimates.

Protracted feuds between EU states over how to handle immigrants have thrown the issue back onto the European agenda.

EU border agency Frontex said on Monday it counted 73,500 “irregular border crossings” into the bloc so far this year via the sea and the Western Balkans route, more than 40 percent fewer than in the first seven months of 2017.

SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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