Italy maintains hard line on persistent Aquarius

Italy has denied safe harbour to the 141 people rescued by the humanitarian ship Aquarius off the coast of Libya last week

Aquarius spent nine days at sea in June and eventually offloaded many of the migrants on board to other vessels, before eventually docking them in Spain.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of junior Italian coalition partner The League said on Twitter on Monday that “it can go where it wants, not in Italy!” and proposed mentioning France, Germany, the UK or Malta as possible destinations.

Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who oversees ports and the coast guard and is a member of the less nationalist senior coalition partner Five Star, said that the ship’s flag country, Gibraltar, should take responsibility.

“At this point, the United Kingdom should assume its responsibility to safeguard the castaways,” Toninelli said on Twitter.

The European Commission was reported by Reuters to be in touch with several EU states and was trying to help resolve the incident.

A Brussels EU spokesperson noted that, while the UK could theoretically be considered as a destination port, it was not practically feasible to bring the ship there. The Aquarius was not considered sufficiently sea worthy in June to be able to get to Spain with its complement of migrants, let alone the UK.

Malta’s rescue coordination centre told the Aquarius on Saturday that it would not welcome the ship, according to the charity ship’s online log.

Malta’s armed forces said that on Monday it rescued 114 migrants from a rubber dinghy taking on water 53 nautical miles south of the Mediterranean island.

The Aquarius ended up taking some 630 migrants to Spain in June, but Spain is notably not repeating the offer. A government spokeswoman said that “at the moment, Spain is not the safest port because it is not the nearest one”.

Due to pressure from Italy and Malta, most charity ships are no longer patrolling off the coast of Libya, and departures from that country have fallen dramatically this year.

Amnesty International claimed that about 720 people died in June and July, when charity ships were mainly absent.

Meanwhile, on August 10th rescue ship Open Arms was barred from leaving the port of Algeciras for a rescue mission off Libya. The crew intended first to head to Barcelona for crew change and maintenance.