Italy stands by decision to reject boat of migrants as row with France escalates

Italy has remained firm in its decision to shut its ports to a ship carrying more than 600 migrants. But Rome insisted it is still willing to help asylum-seekers — under certain conditions.

Italy said on Wednesday that it stood behind its decision to reject port for the French NGO rescue ship Aquarius following sharp criticism from French President Emmanuel Macron, but added it would continue to allow Italian vessels carrying shipwrecked migrants in its ports.

"We will not change (our position) on ships belonging to non-governmental organizations," Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is the head of the anti-immigrant League party in Italy, said in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. "Ships belonging to foreign organizations and flying foreign flags cannot dictate Italy's immigration policy."

Italy and Malta refused to let the Aquarius dock on Sunday. The ship, operated by the Franco-German charity SOS Mediterranee, has 629 migrants onboard, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.

The Aquarius was given permission to dock in Spain's eastern port of Valencia on Monday, but it remains uncertain whether the ship will be able to make the journey.

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Spain to take in refugee ship Aquarius

Italy summons French ambassador

The Italian Foreign Ministry summoned the French Ambassador Christian Masset on Wednesday following Macron's criticism of the decision.

Macron called Italy's decision to shut its ports to the Aquarius "cynical" and "irresponsible," saying international law obligated the Mediterranean country to take immigrants.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hit back at the criticism, saying in a statement: "Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have always preferred to turn their backs when it comes to immigration."

Salvini added he hoped for "an official apology as soon as possible" from France. 

"If the French have the humility to say they are sorry, we can put it behind us and be friends like before," he told reporters on the sidelines of a business conference.

Conte and Macron are due to meet in Paris on Friday.

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Other boat allowed to dock

The Italian coast guard ship Diciotti carrying 937 migrants docked at the port of Catania on Wednesday. They were saved during several rescue operations off the coast of Libya.

Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said the fact that migrants rescued by Italian ships were landing in Italy showed that the government was not "inhumane or xenophobic."

Italy has taken in more than 640,000 migrants and refugees, but EU states have largely ignored requests by Rome to take some of the newcomers in and share some of the cost for their care.

The League party achieved its best-ever result at the Italian elections in March. It ran on an anti-immigrant platform which included pledges to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and halt the flow of newcomers. It formed a coalition with anti-system 5-Star Movement in May.

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First on site

At around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 31, the search-and-rescue vessel Aquarius, along with the Libyan coast guard, was alerted by the Italian Rescue Maritime Coordination Center (IMRCC) that a rubber boat was in distress in international waters. Aquarius is manned by rescue workers from SOS Mediteranee, medics from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and a nautical and technical crew.

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People in distress

Aquarius made first contact with the rubber boat in international waters at around 11:00 a.m. Soon after, the SOS head coordinator was informed by IMRCC that the Libyan coastguard would take charge of the rescue operation. As people in the overcrowded rubber boat, visibly in distress, waved frantically, Aquarius was instructed to standby and wait for further instructions.

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Helping hand

Two hours later, and with no Libyan coastguard in sight, the Aquarius was able to convince the IMRCC and the Libyans to allow them to rescue children, women and families. They evacuated 39 vulnerable people. They had to leave the remaining 80-90 men on the rubber boat to the Libyan coastguard. The Aquarius has the capacity to carry 500 rescued people.

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All in it together

MSF nurse Sylvie was on board the Aquarius' fast-speed rescue boat, whose personnel identified medical and vulnerable cases later evacuated to the NGO ship. Over the course of three missions, the staff saved 292 people from more than 20 countries, the majority from sub-Saharan Africa. Besides showing signs of dehydration, exhaustion and weakness, some also displayed signs of physical abuse.

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Having fun

As parents rested on the ship's deck, MSF logistician Francois took a moment to interact with the newly arrived children. Those rescued got a chance to bond with the ship's crew as well as to express themselves in safe and secure surroundings.

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Doctor's orders

Dr. Dan from California gave each new arrival a check-up to see whether anyone was in need of urgent medical care. Once on land, those rescued are examined by local medical staff in Italy.

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Holding tight in rough weather

As the vessel pitched and rolled in strong winds, SOS Mediteranee team member Theo cuddled a child rescued the day before. "As a seaman it's your duty to save anybody in distress," he said. "We all shed tears yesterday. I had a baby and children in my arms. We helped some women. What's the most important is to get all these out people out of the water, to save them and for them to survive."

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Thanking the Lord

As the Aquarius approached the Sicilian city of Messina, the designated Italian port of safety, many of the rescued women began singing French and English gospel songs praising the Lord and thanking him for safe passage across the Mediterranean Sea.

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On terra firma

Francois personally helped all 292 men, women and children disembark. "Emotionally it was really hard, because once the last guy stepped out on shore, it was over. I could just call everyone and say disembarkation successfully finished, and then I felt empty."

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Thank-you kiss

These lucky people made it to Europe. According to international NGOs figures, between 750,000 and 900,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers remain trapped in Libya, whose migrant detention centers the UN has called inhumane. Many see merely one way out: to attempt to cross one of the world's most deadly seas in rubber dinghies that can only be considered floating death traps.

dv/sms (AFP, Reuters)