Tragedies Ahead if Countries Refuse Migrants Rescued at Sea

Migrant ship Aquarius to dock in Spain

Salvini, who is also Italy's new deputy premier, put his Trump-inspired "Italians First" campaign slogan into practice over the weekend by closing the country's ports to a rescue ship, the Aquarius, which is carrying 629 migrants saved from drowning, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 babies, and seven pregnant women.

But the charity has a new and more pressing problem: Italy's new government.

"If the country has control over the ship and there are migrants in dire straights aboard and no agreement with another state to take them can be found, they should not delay but accept them", Doyle said.

"Denying disembarkation to desperate people rescued at sea can not be considered as a victory: it is the wrong response to the lack of responsibility and burden sharing between member states", said Aloys Vimard, MSF's project coordinator on board Aquarius.

It singled out France, whose leader earlier was quoted as calling Italy's response "cynical", as having adopted migrant arrivals policies "much more rigid and cynical".

"The Italian government has never abandoned the nearly 700 people aboard the Aquarius", the statement in reply insists.

It sailed north toward Italy, but Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party who became interior minister this month vowing to crack down on the influx of migrants from Africa, blocked the ship and said it should go to Malta instead.

Macron told a Cabinet meeting that under maritime law, "in cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond", spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said.

In a strongly worded statement, Premier Giuseppe Conte's office said "Italy can not accept hypocritical lessons from countries that on the topic of immigration have always preferred to turn their heads".

Italy's government is led by two populist parties tied together, in part, by hostility toward migrants and a desire for a tougher stance on immigration.

Following the Spanish offer, Salvini told reporters that his approach had been vindicated.

It suggested that the hundreds on board "are running out of provisions".

But more than 16 hours after Spain made its offer, the Aquarius, which is operated by the charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders, was still drifting at sea close to Malta, awaiting instructions over how to proceed.

On Tuesday morning, Italian rescuers offered to help transfer the migrants to Spain, following three nights of tension for the migrants and aid workers, and after authorities on the French island of Corsica also offered the vessel safe haven.

"People are still fleeing Libya while the Aquarius is away from the search and rescue area in the Central Mediterranean, where rescue capacities are already totally insufficient", said the charity's vice president, Sophie Beau.

Italy had argued that Malta, a tiny island nation that also is an European Union member, was the safest, closest port to the ship.

"We call on all involved to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people on board the Aquarius vessel may be safely disembarked as soon as possible".

The far-right League scored its best-ever result in March national elections and has formed a coalition government with the anti-system 5-Star Movement.

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