A Spanish NGO said Saturday it had rescued 59 migrants as they tried to cross the Mediterranean from Libya and would dock in Spain after Italy and Malta refused access.
The news comes a day after three babies were found dead and 100 more went missing in a shipwreck off Libya that Proactiva Open Arms, whose charity rescue boat was in the area, said could potentially have been avoided.
It also follows a controversial deal reached by EU member states to stem the arrival of migrants. The accord struck Friday includes the setting up of secure centres for migrants in the bloc, “disembarkation platforms” outside the bloc and sharing out refugees among member states.
The Spanish NGO said on Twitter that the 59 migrants were now on board their Open Arms ship “heading for a secure port”.
“Despite the hurdles, we continue to protect the right to life of invisible people. Their stories on what they experienced (in) Libya are terrifying.”
Reacting to the rescue, Italy’s hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said on Facebook: “The nearest port is Malta, the organisation and flag are Spanish: they can forget about coming to an Italian port.”
Malta’s interior minister retorted on Twitter that the migrants had been rescued between Libya and Italy’s Lampedusa.
“Stop spreading incorrect information by pointing the finger at Malta without any reason,” Michael Farrugia said.
In the end, the NGO said they had been given authorisation to dock in Barcelona, adding they would arrive on Wednesday.
Italy’s new populist government and Malta earlier this month refused to let dock French NGO rescue ship Aquarius carrying 630 migrants. The move triggered an international outcry before Spain stepped in to help.
Malta then let another charity rescue boat, Lifeline, dock with 230 migrants aboard.
Proactiva Open Arms also accused coastguards in the area of hindering their work as countries such as Italy take a hardline stance against the arrival of migrants.
The NGO said Friday’s shipwreck could potentially have been avoided as the official call for help from Italy’s rescue control centre only came one hour after Open Arms overheard an EU plane warning Libyan coastguards that a migrant boat was in trouble.
– NGOs ‘easy scapegoats’ –
Another NGO, SOS Méditerranée on Saturday denounced “the failure of European states to respect maritime conventions,” saying that NGOs were being unfairly blamed.
“NGOS have become easy scapegoats,” he said, adding that Libyan ports could not be considered safe ports for migrants.
The Libyan coastguard is widely suspected of abuses and migrants who are returned to the lawless and violence-wracked north African country face further violence, charities say.
Humanitarian groups have been operating rescue ships in the sea between war-wracked Libya and Italy for several years, plucking tens of thousands of migrants from dangerously overcrowded and ill-equipped boats, sometimes from the sea itself.
But critics, including most recently French President Emmanuel Macron, say the NGOs help the violent gangs that make millions offering mostly African migrants a passage to Europe.
Concerns about the charities were voiced by the EU border agency Frontex in a confidential 2016 report, which said they used powerful lights at night on their vessels which acted “as a beam for the migrants”.
Since then, politicians in Italy as well as far-right figures across Europe have regularly questioned rescue missions next to, or sometimes inside, Libyan territorial waters.
Italy’s new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has said the country “cannot be Europe’s refugee camp” and has accused the charity-run boats of operating like a “taxi service” for smugglers and migrants.