A Spanish rescue boat has plucked 60 migrants from a patched-up rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea near Libya, igniting another political row between Italy and Malta over who should let the vessel dock.
The boat, Open Arms, run by Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms, said it rescued the migrants – including five women, a nine-year-old child and three teenagers – after it spotted a rubber boat patched with duct tape floating in the sea. All the migrants appeared in good health.
Italy’s right-wing interior minister Matteo Salvini quickly declared that the rescue boat “can forget about arriving in an Italian port”, and claimed it should instead go to Malta, the nearest port.
But Malta swiftly pushed back, with its interior minister contending that the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, was closer to the boat.
The Open Arms is the third rescue ship operated by humanitarian groups in the central Mediterranean to come into the crosshairs of Mr Salvini’s crackdown in the last three weeks.
Even though the number of migrants arriving in Europe is sharply down this year from 2017, the topic of migration has deepened political divisions in the European Union, fuelled in part by the demands of anti-migrant nationalist parties.
Mr Salvini has vowed that no more humanitarian groups’ rescue boats will dock in Italy, where in recent years, private rescue vessels have brought many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants saved from smugglers’ boats.
But cracks have started showing between the two parties in Italy’s new populist coalition government over Mr Salvini’s hard-line approach.
Roberto Fico, president of Parliament’s lower chamber and a leading figure in the 5-Star Movement, the ruling coalition’s senior partner, told reporters after inspecting a migrant reception centre in a Sicilian port town that “I wouldn’t close the ports”.
Mr Fico told reporters that Libya now “isn’t a place with security” and its coastguard “needs the support of the Italian navy and coastguard and also from some NGO boats”.
He urged more solidarity toward the migrants, who he said have “dramatic stories that touch the heart”.
Mr Salvini contended on Twitter that the Open Arms had taken on the migrants before a Libyan boat in Libya’s search-and-rescue zone could intervene.
But the Open Arms’ captain, Marco Martinez, said he told the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre about the migrants and was instructed to call Libyan maritime authorities, who did not answer either by phone or by radio. The captain said officials in Rome then told him it was up to him to decide whether to carry out the rescue.
While politicians bickered, those rescued by the Open Arms were jubilant, jumping, chanting and hugging their rescuers.
A nine-year-old boy’s eyes sparkled when the Open Arms crew referred to him as “captain” after he was allowed to sit in the captain’s seat on the bridge for a few minutes.
Barcelona mayor Ada Colau later called on Spain’s prime minister to grant the city docking rights for Open Arms.
He tweeted that PM Pedro Sanchez should “save lives” because Barcelona “doesn’t want to be an accomplice to the policies of death of Matteo Salvini”.