Italian government officials yesterday said that Italy would refuse to let the humanitarian ship Aquarius dock at its ports and it had asked the Mediterranean island of Malta to open its doors to the vessel.
The move by Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who is also head of the far-right League, is an attempt to make good on his electoral promises to halt the flow of migrants into the country.
Frontex, the EU's Border and Coast Guard Agency, will not intervene in the current diplomatic stand-off between Malta and Italy over the 629 migrants stranded on a ship, telling The Malta Independent that the Search and Rescue operation took place outside of the operational area of Frontex-coordinated Operation Themis.
"The prime minister has given instructions for Spain to honour worldwide commitments on humanitarian crises and announced that the country will receive the ship Aquarius", his office said in a statement.
"As such Malta will not take the said vessel in its ports".
A little more than a week ago, Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, told a crowd that "Italy and Sicily can not be Europe's refugee camp" and "the good times for illegals are over", Deutsche Welle reports.
The migrants were saved by SOS Mediterranee on Saturday and are stuck aboard the French NGO's ship Aquarius, which is now between Malta and Sicily waiting for a secure port for her to dock.
"Malta is not acting, France rejects them, and Europe doesn't care", Salvini wrote.More news: Alex Ovechkin: Caps treating every game like it's their last
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In defiance of Salvini and the government's anti-immigrant stance, several Italian mayors have suggested they would be prepared to welcome the Aquarius into their port.
"The boat is now heading north towards a secure port", SOS Mediterranee tweeted without specifying its destination, though virtually every such migrant boat over the past five years ended up in Italy.
Italy, which has a new, anti-immigration government, suggested that Malta take in the migrants. Malta refused, and when Italy instructed the ship to stay at sea, Malta accused Italy of violating worldwide norms.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Italy's refusal to allow the Aquarius ship to dock at an Italian port risks "creating a unsafe situation for all those involved". "Saving lives is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn't".
The Maltese government refused the request, stating global law required the passengers be unloaded in Italy.
"Malta is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority in this case". But at the same time, the responses of other nations in the region seem to support what Italy's Interior Minister is saying. "We need to have an idea of what port to go to, something that up to now we haven't had", Aquarius crew member Alessandro Porro told news channel Sky TG24 on Sunday.
"Nevertheless I am very anxious for the direction taken by Italian authorities". "This time there's someone saying no". Some 400 of the migrants were rescued by the Italian Navy, the Italian coastguard and merchant vessels before being transferred to the Aquarius.
But with 3,116 deaths in 2017, the Mediterranean remained the deadliest migrant route in the world a year ago, according to the IOM.