Having spent several days at sea after being rejected at ports in Italy and Malta, 629 weak and exhausted refugees and migrants – among them six pregnant women and more than 100 unaccompanied minors – are expected to arrive in the Spanish city of Valencia on Sunday morning, according to NGOs.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new far-right, anti-immigration interior minister, sparked a European diplomatic fallout when he refused to allow the MV Aquarius rescue boat to dock, tweeting on Sunday: “From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration”, along with the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti (close the doors).
After Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, a socialist who took office on June 2, offered to take the refugees in, they began the four-day journey to Valencia on Tuesday evening.
“The Mediterranean Sea must not become a mass grave” because it has always been “a bridge between cultures, nations, people from different races and languages, a bridge towards progress, commerce, contact, experiences and relationships”, Monica Oltra, Valencia’s regional vice president, said on Friday.
The refugees will arrive in three boats, as two Italian naval and coastguard vessels took on board 400 people from the overburdened rescue boat.
Maltese and Italian navy ships had resupplied the Aquarius with bottles of water, food packages and clothing for the 1,300km voyage.
Before their four-day journey, the refugees and migrants – who had set off from Libya – had remained stranded between Sicily and Malta for more than 36 hours.
“Italy’s decision to close its ports to these people is a disgrace and puts their lives at risk unnecessarily,” said David Beversluis, a doctor on board the Aquarius. “These people are vulnerable and they need medical attention.”
The Mediterranean Sea must not become a mass grave.
Aquarius is run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), who announced the expected landing day.
Italy’s denial of a safe harbour has led to an international outcry.
European politicians and NGOs rebuked Italy for what they claimed was a violation of its humanitarian responsibilities and international maritime law, which requires the nearest port to admit ships in distress.
French President Emmanuel Macron launched a war of words, calling Italy “irresponsible”, while his party’s spokesman Gabriel Attal told Public Senat TV: “The Italian position makes me vomit.”
Italy’s foreign ministry then summoned the French ambassador to Rome to explain Macron’s comments.
Salvini struck back at France, calling on Macron to honour a 2015 deal to accept almost 10,000 migrants under an EU distribution scheme.
“I ask President Macron to pass from words to action,” he said in a speech to parliament on Wednesday.
There were suggestions that a scheduled meeting between Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Macron would not go ahead in Paris on Friday, but that meeting is now taking place.
While upsetting France, Salvini found allies in Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and far-right Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who suggested Italy, Germany and Austria form an “axis of the willing” to tackle illegal migration.
Authorities are preparing a sailing facility near Valencia port to accommodate those on board for up to several days.
Doctors on board warned of overcrowding and said several people needed immediate medical treatment for serious illnesses, including hypothermia and chemical burns.
The Red Cross and local health officials will provide urgent medical care to those in need, and the UNHCR will facilitate those making asylum claims in Spain.
The Aquarius is one of only three NGO boats still conducting rescue operations off the coast of Libya.
“This has been a very positive move from the new Spanish government to authorise the disembarkation of this group … We are very grateful,” said UNHCR spokesperson Rosa Otero.
She said the people on board, who come from more than 20 countries including Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sudan, were incredibly relieved to hear they would not be sent back to Libya, where migrants are often attacked and abused.
Despite the Italian government’s hard line towards NGO rescue boats, the Italian coastguard brought 932 migrants and refugees on shore in Catania, Sicily on Wednesday after it rescued them off the coast of Libya.
So far in 2018, 44,570 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean and arrived in Europe, while 792 have died while making the perilous journey, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“What we need is for Europe not to close its borders and to have more solidarity and coordination, not responsibility shifting,” said UNHCR’s Otero.