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Italy's deputy prime minister claimed "victory" over a decision to refuse the docking of a migrant rescue ship carrying 629 people.
The Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Monday afternoon that his country would give "safe harbor" to the Aquarius after both Italy and Malta refused to let the ship disembark on its shores. Sanchez said the ship will instead dock in Valencia.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing Lega party and the new deputy prime minister said in a tweet that victory had been achieved.
According to Reuters, Salvini added in a press conference that raising Italy's voice on migration had paid off and although the standoff had been resolved by Spain's "good heart," the European Union could not rely on similar gestures going forward.
Salvini had revealed the new government's stance against immigration on Sunday by refusing to allow the search and rescue ship "Aquarius," which is carrying 629 migrants, to dock in an Italian port, saying Malta was nearer the ship's location and that it should accept the vessel.
Malta refused, promoting a diplomatic rift with Italy and leaving the migrant vessel in limbo.
In a statement released with Danilo Toninelli, the minister in charge of the Italian coastguard, Salvini said Malta "cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise international conventions on the protection of human life."
"That's why we ask the government in Valletta to take in the Aquarius in order to offer first aid to the migrants on board," the statement, widely reported by Italian media, said.
Malta refused, however, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat saying that Malta "will not take the vessel in its ports." Malta said the rescue was not conducted in waters where it coordinates search and rescue operations, therefore it was not the appropriate authority to take on the vessel.
Muscat rebuffed Italy's claims that the island was not abiding by international obligations and called on Italy to accept the vessel rather than risk "creating a dangerous situation for all those involved."
As of Monday morning, the vessel is located between Sicily and Malta, ship tracker VesselFinder.com showed. On Monday afternoon, Sanchez gave it instructions for it to be admitted to the eastern port of Valencia, according to Reuters.
Salvini, who is also Italy's new interior minister in a coalition government led by Lega and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, took to Facebook Sunday to insist that Malta — and the rest of Europe — were not doing their fair share to accept migrants trying to reach the continent by boat.
"In the Mediterranean there are ships with the flag of Holland, Spain, Gibraltar and Great Britain, there are German and Spanish non-governmental organizations, (NGOs), and there is Malta that does not welcome anyone, there is France that rejects at the border, there is Spain that defends its borders with weapons, in short, all of Europe is minding its own business," Salvini said, as well as .
"From now also Italy begins to say no to the traffic of human beings, no to the business of illegal immigration. My goal is to guarantee a peaceful life for these children in Africa and for our children in Italy," he added.
Tensions with Malta over migrants rose several days ago when a spat developed over whether Malta had refused to accept another vessel, the Seefuchs, with 119 migrants on board. The vessel eventually docked in Pozzallo, Sicily. Malta rejected the Italian government's accusations that it had refused the ship, saying that the rescue operation had determined that Sicily was the nearest safe haven.
Salvini has pledged to deport 500,000 illegal migrants from Italy, a country that is a frontline state in Europe's migration crisis. Since an influx of migrants began around 2014, it has seen around 600,000 migrants arrive on its shores causing immigration to become a divisive topic in Italy. Most of the migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa, data shows, with most crossing the sea from Libya and Tunisia.
Data from the United Nation's International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that 119,310 men, women and children arrived in Italy in 2017 after traveling by sea. That figure represented the lowest total in four years, the organization said. So far this year, 10,808 people have arrived by sea and 384 people have died making the perilous crossing.
Far fewer migrants have arrived in Malta, a small island with a total population of around 437,000. Only 23 arrived by boat in Malta in 2017, IOM data showed, down from 2,008 people that arrived by boat on the island in 2013.
Since the European Union introduced a resettlement scheme in 2015 — a controversial program designed to take the pressure of frontline states like Greece and Italy by relocating migrants to other countries within the EU — Malta has taken 101 migrants from Greece and 67 from Italy, IOM data from March this year showed. It committed to accepting 205 migrants.
Italy has criticized the relocation scheme, saying its European neighbors are not fulfilling promises to accept resettled migrants.
The diplomatic spat started after European charity SOS Mediterranee, which runs the Aquarius search and rescue ship (with Médecins Sans Frontières), said on Twitter that its ship had over 600 migrants on board who had been rescued in various operations on Saturday.
Those on board included 229 people that the Aquarius itself had rescued and 400 people that had been rescued earlier by the Italian navy, Italian coastguard and merchant vessels. Among those on board were 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and seven pregnant women, the charity tweeted.
The charity posted Sunday evening that it had taken "good note" of the declaration of the Italian Interior Ministry but said: "Our only objective is the disembarkation in a port of safety of the people that we rescued yesterday in difficult conditions."
The MV Aqaurius was "heading North to a port of safety" but didn't specify where it would try to dock. It said it was aware that Malta's search and rescue (SAR) authorities "have been contacted by the Italian SAR authorities to find the best solution for the well-being and safety of the 629 people on board the Aquarius."
Having received no instructions, however, it had been forced to stop halfway between Malta and Sicily, saying that "629 rescued people need a decision." The latest tweet from the charity said Italy's maritime rescue coordination center had told it to remain on standby 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta. It was unknown where and when the ship would be allowed to dock until the Spanish intervention on Monday afternoon.