Spain gives refuge after Italy’s Trump-approved prime minister rejects migrants

Migrants wait to disembark from Aquarius in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, May 27, 2018. (Reuters, Guglielmo Mangiapane)

Migrants wait to disembark from Aquarius in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, May 27, 2018. (Reuters, Guglielmo Mangiapane)

Spain has agreed to let a ship carrying over 600 migrants dock in Valencia, after Italy’s new populist government refused to accept the ship – making good on its electoral rhetoric to take a tougher stance on migration.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Monday afternoon that his country would give “safe harbour” to the MS Aquarius which is carrying 629 mostly sub-Saharan Africa migrants, including children and pregnant women, who have been rescued from inflatable boats.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte welcomed the move. He thanked Spain for what he called a “gesture of solidarity” and Matteo Salvini, the prime minister’s far-right interior minister, declared the end of the standoff a victory for Italy.

Salvini has defended the coalition government’s stance, saying on Facebook: “Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not. Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no.”

The impasse, after Italy’s government refused to allow the ship to dock over the weekend, suggested that Europe could face a humanitarian crisis as it comes to grips with the new Italian government’s hardline approach to refugees and migrants.

The ship was forced to float off the coast of Malta following Italy’s dogged refusal, a predicament which the Maltese government deemed unfair as Italy’s strategy had the potential to force Malta’s hand and potentially create a precedent with more migrants heading to the tiny island nation.

Italy is the third largest country in the eurozone, with a population 60-million. At over 316 square kilometres and with a population of just under 450 000, Malta is one of the world’s smallest and most densely populated countries.

The United Nations’ refugee agency and the European Union both called for a swift end to the stand-off.

Sánchez, who took office a week ago, said: “It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations.”

Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister, thanked Sánchez and pointed out that “Italy broke international rules and caused a standoff”. Muscat added that his government would be sending supplies to the ship.

“We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again,” he said.

Conte’s hardline approach on the MS Aquarius, a move which contravened international law requiring states to help a vessel in distress, put to the test the Italian government’s new position on European diplomacy.

In his maiden speech to Italian Parliament he made this position clear: “The first litmus test of the new way we want to negotiate with our European partners will be the issue of immigration,” he said.

“It’s clear to everyone that the management of migrant flows has been a failure: Europe has allowed many member states selfish border closures, which have ended up burdening frontline states and especially our country, with costs and difficulties that should have been shared.”

United States President Donald Trump has recently demonstrated his affinity with the new prime minister, after Conte backed him on his position that Russia should rejoin the G-7.

On Saturday, Trump announced that he would be hosting Conte “shortly”, adding that “the people of Italy got it right!” in electing their new leader.

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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