By Joan Faus and Gavin Jones
MADRID/ROME (Reuters) – A Spanish charity operating a migrant rescue ship stranded off the coast of Italy has rejected an offer from Spain to dock in Algeciras, saying the more than 100 people on board were in an emergency situation and it would take too long to reach Spain.
The migrants, most of whom are African, had been picked up by the Open Arms off the coast of Libya in the past two weeks and have been waiting to disembark on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has ordered his officials not to let them disembark, though he made a partial concession on Saturday by allowing 27 minors to leave the boat, saying he had only agreed to this at the insistence of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Charity rescue boats have largely disappeared from the Mediterranean over the past year because of tighter government controls and lengthy offshore standoffs.
“Spain always acts on humanitarian emergencies. It is necessary to establish an orderly and supportive European solution, leading the migration challenge with the EU’s values of progress and humanism,” Spain’s acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted.
However, the Open Arms charity said on Sunday the vessel of the same name could not go to Spain, as it was a long trip that would risk the wellbeing of the migrants.
“We are in a state of extreme humanitarian emergency. What they need is to be disembarked now,” an Open Arms spokeswoman said. “It is unthinkable to sail for six days.”
The spokeswoman later said the charity had received an order from Spain’s maritime coordination centre to head towards Algeciras and its captain and legal team were in communication with the centre.
Salvini, who had welcomed Spain’s offer as a vindication of his hardline stance, said Open Arms’ refusal to accept it was “incredible and unacceptable”.
“Italy is not the refugee camp of Europe,” he said.
With Salvini – who as leader of the ruling League party has built his popularity on a vigorous campaign against illegal immigration – refusing to budge, and Open Arms refusing to take the migrants elsewhere, the standoff looks intractable.
It may end with Conte, a former academic who is not a member of any party, again stepping in to overrule Salvini.
France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg this week said they would help to relocate the migrants. That scheme would take place once the migrants disembark in Algeciras, the Spanish government said.
It also criticised the “inconceivable response of Italian authorities”, especially Salvini’s.
Before Open Arms’ rejection of Spain’s offer, Salvini had renewed his attacks on Open Arms, accusing it of lying about the condition of the migrants. He said a medical inspection by Italian authorities had shown no emergency on board.
“They tell us to let the sick off the boat and they turn out not to be sick; they say let the minors off and a lot of them turn out not to be minors; we check the medical emergency and there is no emergency,” he said on Facebook.
Open Arms said that a few migrants had jumped off the boat. It posted a video on Twitter of what it said were migrants from the boat trying to swim to shore before being caught by rescuers who jumped in after them.
(Reporting by Gavin Jones and Joan Faus; Editing by David Goodman, Mark Potter and Alexandra Hudson)