World News

Shunned by Italy, Migrants at Sea Arrive in Spain

Posted June 17, 2018 7:16 p.m. EDT

MADRID — About 600 migrants disembarked from three ships Sunday in the port of Valencia, Spain, more than a week after they had been rescued at sea only to be turned away by Italy and Malta.

Arriving separately, the Aquarius, a rescue ship, and two Italian navy vessels reached Valencia carrying a total of 630 migrants — including pregnant women and children — that the Aquarius had originally picked up from six rubber dinghies in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya.

After their exhausting journey, migrants shouted with joy as their ships entered Valencia’s port. Some disembarked singing.

The fate of the Aquarius has underlined the deep divisions in Europe over how to handle an influx of migrants mostly from the Middle East and Africa.

The Aquarius is operated by two European humanitarian groups, SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders. David Noguera, president of the Spanish branch of Doctors Without Borders, said Sunday that the migrants had completed a journey that was “too long and generates contradictory feelings.”

He added, “The blockade of European ports sets a very negative precedent.”

The landing in Spain opens a new chapter in a saga that began last Sunday, when Italy’s new populist government followed through on anti-immigration campaign promises by refusing to let the Aquarius dock at an Italian port.

Italy’s interior minister and the leader of the anti-immigrant League, Matteo Salvini, had argued that “an army of fake refugees” had long exploited what he called the country’s lax rules.

That left the ship, which at the time was overburdened with the rescued migrants, stranded at sea in dangerous conditions.

The migrants will be granted a special humanitarian permit to stay in Spain for 45 days while authorities review their cases and give them medical attention. The Spanish government said it would review all of the 630 migrants’ cases to decide whether to grant them asylum. Those who do not fulfill the criteria would face deportation.

Italy’s decision to bar the migrants drew a furious reaction from humanitarian groups and other European countries. Spain brought an end to the standoff when its new Socialist government offered to let the migrants land there instead.

During the standoff, Italy allowed emergency services to board the Aquarius to check on the migrants, who were crammed on board. The Italian government also sent two navy ships to escort the Aquarius to Spain and to help transport the migrants to reduce overcrowding.

Salvini has cast his government’s turning away of the Aquarius as a political victory. His party campaigned on promises to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants and to prevent new arrivals from landing on Italian shores.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain said his government’s decision to let the refugees land was an “obligation to avoid a human catastrophe.” Salvini responded acerbically to the Spanish decision. He welcomed the “good heart” of Sánchez’s government and urged him to “also use his generosity in coming weeks” to welcome more migrants, given that Spain has received far fewer than Italy.

Even as the Aquarius migrants reached safety after their week at sea, others faced a similar ordeal.

Salvini warned on his Facebook page Saturday that “two other ships with the flag of Netherlands — Lifeline and Seefuchs — have arrived off the coast of Libya, waiting for their load of human beings abandoned by the smugglers.”

He said Italy would block those other rescue ships, too, writing: “These gentlemen know that Italy no longer wants to be complicit in the business of illegal immigration, and therefore will have to look for other ports (not Italian) where to go.”

On Sunday morning, Spanish medical staff boarded the Dattilo to carry out preliminary health checks when the Italian navy ship reached its assigned dock at Valencia’s port, shortly before 7 a.m. local time. Spanish police officers began registering the first migrants once they were allowed to disembark. The Orione, another Italian navy vessel, was the last to reach Valencia, more than six hours after the Dattilo.

The first migrant who completed the registration process was a 29-year-old man from Sudan, according to Spanish news reports. Over 2,000 people helped receive the migrants in Valencia, including Red Cross workers and interpreters.

Some of the migrants are expected to be transferred to France, after the government of President Emmanuel Macron announced that passengers from the Aquarius who wished to resettle in his country would be welcomed. The arrival of the Aquarius coincided with the rescue of almost 1,000 migrants off the southern coast of Spain over the weekend. The migrants, traveling in dozens of dinghies, were picked up by the country’s maritime rescue services as they were trying to cross the waters separating Morocco from Spain.

“Spain faces an avalanche of migrants because of the call effect,” the headline on the front page of ABC, a Spanish right-wing newspaper, read Sunday. The newspaper said that “almost 1,000 illegals” had reached southern Andalusia, calling it the largest influx of migrants since 2014.

According to ABC, the message sent by the government’s humanitarian gesture could be “used by the mafias that traffic human beings to increase their activity, because it allows them to make their clients believe that the entrance to Spanish territory — and hence that of Europe — will be easier from now.”