By Belén Carreño
MADRID (Reuters) – A Spanish warship collected 15 rescued migrants from an Italian port on Tuesday, having sailed halfway across the Mediterranean to fetch the small group in a high-profile manoeuvre that sharply contrasted with Italy’s refusal to accept them.
Madrid dispatched the ship a week ago to pick up the migrants at the end of a prolonged standoff between Italian authorities and a Spanish-registered private rescue boat which had plucked more than 100 people, most of them Africans, from seas off Libya.
France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal had agreed to take the rest of the migrants but only Spain, which traded angry words with Rome during the standoff, sent a ship.
“This is the kind of situation where you see countries taking political or symbolic actions that don’t necessarily make economic sense,” said Elisa De Pieri, a London-based researcher with rights group Amnesty International, adding that rescued migrants are usually transferred by plane.
Italy, which lies close to Libya, denies port access to non-government rescue ships, agreeing to bring migrants ashore only if other European nations commit to take them, in which case the migrants are usually flown out of Italy in a matter of hours.
After trading insults with anti-immigrant Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini – Spain’s defence minister accused him of a “lack of humanity” – Madrid agreed to take the migrants and dispatched the warship on Aug. 20, intending to collect them from the still-stranded rescue boat, Open Arms.
Hours after the warship, Audaz, left from Cádiz on Spain’s Atlantic coast, the standoff ended and the migrants were brought ashore on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.
Instead of turning back, the warship, equipped with artillery and machine guns, finally sailed to Lampedusa last Friday morning, its arrival broadcast by international news media – only to find that the migrants would be soon transferred to nearby Sicily, where they were finally taken aboard.
Spain says there was no point in calling the ship back last week and arranging a flight for the migrants instead.
“We are going to be the first country arriving in Lampedusa and picking up the migrants. If we had cancelled the ship operation and we had started a new plan to bring them by other means, we would have been delayed,” a government source said.
Amnesty said the saga underlined Europe’s failure to deal with African migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean.
“It’s becoming the new norm for rescue ships to be left in limbo for several weeks. It’s a violation of human rights,” De Pieri said.
(Additional reporting by Pamela Barbaglia; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Peter Graff)