ROME - Spain stepped up Monday and offered to take in a rescue ship carrying more than 600 migrants after Italy and Malta refused. The diplomatic standoff left the migrants stranded in the Mediterranean Sea and laid bare the brass-knuckled negotiating tactics of Italy’s new anti-immigrant government.
The U.N. refugee agency, the European Union, Germany and humanitarian groups had all demanded that Italy and Malta put their domestic politics aside and urgently consider the plight of the 629 migrants, among them more than 120 children, seven pregnant women and people suffering from hypothermia.
Doctors Without Borders, which has staff aboard the Aquarius, said the rescued migrants were stable for now but that food and water on the ship would run out by Monday night. It said some passengers had seawater in their lungs as well as chemical burns caused when gasoline mixes with seawater.
Despite the diplomatic pressure, Italy and Malta held firm, with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini clearly using the high seas drama as a pretext to force the hand of Italy’s European neighbors. Italy has long demanded that the EU change its migration policy and make good on promises to accept more refugees, saying that Italy has been left alone to coordinate rescues and accept tens of thousands of migrants a year for asylum processing.
His co-deputy premier, Luigi Di Maio, claimed that Monday was a turning point in Europe’s divisive debate over immigration.
“From now on, Italy isn’t alone, and we hope other European leaders follow” Spain’s example, said Di Maio, who along with the League is seeking to renegotiate the EU regulations that determine which EU country is responsible for processing asylum claims.