EU faces fresh standoff over Aquarius migrant boat

AFP , Tuesday 14 Aug 2018

France Migrants
In this Aug 1, 2018 file photo, the French NGO "SOS Mediterranee" Aquarius ship leaves the Marseille harbor, southern France. (AP)

European countries faced pressure on Tuesday to resolve a fresh standoff with the operators of the migrant rescue ship Aquarius which is stranded for the second time in the Mediterranean carrying 141 people.

France said it was in touch with the other EU nations to "rapidly" find a port where the Aquarius could dock after it was refused entry by Italy and Malta, the two countries closest to its current location.

The Aquarius, which was left stranded with 630 migrants on board in June after being turned away by Rome and Valletta, resumed rescue operations off the Libyan coast last week.

France again voiced disapproval of Italy's "very tough political stance" -- milder language than two months ago when President Emmanuel Macron accused his Italian partners of "cynicism and irresponsibility".

The 141 migrants on board the Aquarius were picked up on Friday in two separate operations and are in a stable condition, the French charity that operates the Aquarius, SOS Mediterranee, said.

The first rescue saw 25 people plucked from a wooden boat bobbing on the seas off the Libyan coast, while another 116 were rescued from another larger vessel later in the day.

The second boat was overloaded and more than half of the passengers were unaccompanied children, mostly from Somalia and Eritrea. They had no food or water stocks, SOS Mediterranee said.

"We're asking all European countries to find a solution. We're asking them to be responsible and find a safe port in the Mediterranean," Sophie Beau, head of charity, told AFP on Monday.

Tove Ernst, a spokesman for the European Commission, said Monday that it was in contact with "a number of member states that have approached us regarding the incident" to try to find a "swift resolution" to the standoff.

Since June, Italy's new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has regularly turned away rescue ships operated by foreign NGOs, accusing them of playing into the hands of people smugglers.

On Saturday, he said the Gibraltar-flagged Aquarius would "never see an Italian port" again, accusing it of encouraging smugglers and migrants to take to the water in the knowledge that they will be rescued.

The Italian coast guard continues to rescue migrants, however.

The government of Gibraltar also announced a newly hostile attitude to the Aquarius, saying it would no longer be allowed to operate under its maritime flag after being registered on the British overseas territory in 2009.

The stance is a sign of hardening public opinion towards migrants in Europe following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people who are fleeing war or poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

For years, Italy pleaded with its EU partners for help with a massive influx of arrivals that has seen 700,000 people cross the Mediterranean and land in the country since 2013.

The new Italian policy of turning back charity boats sparked a furious row among EU members in June, which was resolved only when Spain, under a new Socialist government, stepped in and offered to take in the Aquarius.

France's Macron was criticised by some on the left for failing to offer the Aquarius a port in France -- it was the next closest country to the boat after Italy and Malta -- despite an offer from the island of Corsica.

Local leaders on the French island have again pledged to provide a safe haven for the migrants, as has the port of Sete on the mainland -- but the invitations would need to be approved by the government in Paris.

"If the closest ports are closed, then others that are closer need to open," the head of the Corsican local assembly, Jean-Guy Talamoni, told the BFM channel on Tuesday.

"We left Italy alone to deal with the problem, but it's a problem for the whole of Europe," Talamoni added, calling on the French government to make a statement on the Aquarius crisis.

France took in 78 of the migrants on board the Aquarius in June after they landed in Spain.

This time a Spanish government source told AFP that Spain would not step in because "it is not the safest port" for the migrant ship to dock.

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