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Spain Offers Safe Port After 'Completely Inhuman' Italy and Malta Refuse Ship of 600+ Refugees Rescued at Sea

Affirming "obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe," Spain opens port to vessel carrying 123 unaccompanied minors, seven pregnant women, 15 people with chemcial burns, and several others recovering from hypothermia

rescued refugees

More than 600 people are stuck on a rescue ship between Italy and Malta after being saved from the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: Karpov/SOS Méditerranée/Twitter)

After a top Italian official threatened to close off all of the country's ports to refugees and, along with Malta, barred a ship carrying more than 600 migrants rescued in Mediterranean Sea to dock—a move critics decried as a blatant violation of international law—advocates praised Spain on Monday for offering "safe port" to the vessel.

"It is our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, as such meeting with the obligations of international law."
—Spanish Prime Minister
Pedro Sánchez

"It is our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, as such meeting with the obligations of international law," Spain's new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said, according to the Spanish newspaper El País.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called Sánchez's decision "courageous and welcome," while emphasizing that "irrespective of how European countries choose to manage their sea borders, the principle of rescue at sea is one that should never be in doubt."

Grandi added that he is willing to meet with concerned governments to discuss "arrangements for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and to avoid any repetition of the situation in which the Aquarius found itself."

Despite confirmation from Sánchez and Valencia's regional premier about Spain's plans to work with the U.N. to designate a safe port, SOS Méditerranée tweeted that Aquarius has been refueled and provided with emergency food and water by the Maltese navy but has not received additional instructions to begin moving again from its current position between Italy and Malta.

SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières—also known as Doctors Without Borders—said the vessel currently has 629 people aboard, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children, seven pregnant women, 15 people who are suffering serious chemcial burns, and several others who are recovering from hypothermia and nearly downing to death.

Human rights groups have sharply criticized both Malta and Italy for rejecting the ship. Elisa De Pieri, an Amnesty International researcher focused on Italy, accused both nations of turning their backs "on their obligations under international law."

"The men, women, and children aboard the Aquarius have risked their lives on perilous seas to escape horrific abuses in Libya only to find themselves caught in an unconscionable political stand-off between two European states," she said, while also pointing out that "keeping NGO boats at sea waiting for a port means that fewer rescue ships are available to assist people who may be in distress right now."

Many of the migrants were even rescued by Italian naval units before being transferred to the Aquarius, the Guardian reported. The newspaper noted that Italian voters' frustration over some 600,000 African migrants who have fled to Italy by boat in the past five years contributed to the recent electoral success of the League, a far-right political party.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a member of the party, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday that Aquarius should have docked in Malta, and slammed France and Spain for their responses to the global refugee crisis. "From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration," he wrote. "We will shut the ports."

Ahead of Spain's announcement, both the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and the mayor of Valencia, Joan Ribó, had reportedly offered to take in the refugees. Ribó had said the city would be "mobilizing all its resources so that Valencia will be the docking point if there are no other options," adding that he found it "completely inhuman" that a ship "could be left adrift in this situation."

The Guardian captured the current conditions aboard the ship in a short video:

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