MADRID/ROME- Spain has offered "a safe harbor" for the migrant ship carrying 629 people to "avoid disaster", the Spanish government said in a statement on Monday.
Italy and Malta welcomed Spain's decision, a day after the ship was denied entry in Italian ports. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said: "It is our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer 'a safe harbor' to these people, thus complying with obligations of international law."He also explained that the Spanish city of Valencia (in the east) would let the ship dock.
The president of the Autonomous Community of Valencia, Ximo Puig, said the permission for the ship to dock had been granted by the country's Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo. Calvo said Valencia would be the port to receive them as a part of a "humanitarian operation, which the government will undertake hand in hand with the United Nations", according to Puig.
However, local media reported that the captain of the ship, Aquarius, has not been notified of the new destination, Valencia, a journey that could last around three days. The Aquarius wandered for over 36 hours in the central Mediterranean, since after Italy and Malta both refused to let it reach their ports and disembark the 629 people rescued during six missions off the coasts of Libya last week.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said it was the response to stop the business of illegal immigration. "Starting today, Italy, too, begins to say no to the trafficking of human beings, no to the business of clandestine immigration," Salvini tweeted.
The Aquarius -- operated by the charity SOS Mediterranee -- has 629 migrants and refugees on board, including 11 small children, 123 non-accompanied minors, and at least 7 pregnant women. Spain's decision was a step in the right direction, according to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was recently appointed as the head of a populist coalition government.
"We asked for a sign of solidarity from the European Union (EU) on this emergency," Conte told reporters, as he visited people in the quake-hit town of Accumoli in central Italy. "I cannot but thank the Spanish authorities for having accepted our appeal," Conte said.
Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat also thanked his Spanish counterpart Sanchez. "I thank Spain PM Sanchez for taking in Aquarius after Italy broke international rules and caused a standoff," Muscat said on Twitter. "Malta will be sending fresh supplies to the vessel. We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue." On Sunday night, Muscat spoke with Conte and told him that Malta was acting in conformity with its international obligations but would not be taking in the vessel.
Muscat accused Italian authorities of going against international rules by giving the Aquarius orders on the high seas.
Spain's decision was described as a "victory" by Salvini, who is also leader of far-right League and allied of anti-establishment Five Star Movement in the cabinet. "Raising politely our voice is clearly fruitful, and this is something Italy has not been doing for a long time," Salvini told a press conference.
"We have opened a fresh line of discussion for a new immigration policy at continental level," he added. Since 2014, it had been a usual procedure for ships carrying out search-and-rescue missions in central Mediterranean to bring to Italy the people saved during the perilous sea crossing from northern African coasts.
That meant Italy became the first point of entry for a large majority of migrants and asylum-seekers heading to Europe, and especially since the closure of the so-called Balkan route in 2016. However, the new Italian government was forged on a political platform promising a tough approach on irregular immigration, and a stop in the reception of migrants and refugees.