Jun 11, 2018 18:32 UTC
  • EU, UNHCR call on Italy, Malta to let refugee ship dock

The European Union and the United Nations refugee agency have called on Italy and Malta to immediately end a political standoff that has left hundreds of refugees stranded at the Mediterranean Sea and to allow their ship to dock.

The plea was made on Monday, after some 629 refugees, including minors, children and pregnant women, on a rescue ship were refused entry and left waiting in international waters between the two countries.

Italy’s new Interior Minister and leader of the far-right League Party, Matteo Salvini, had closed Italian ports a day earlier and refused to let in the humanitarian ship, Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders. He had also sent a letter to the island-state of Malta, south of Italy, threatening to close all the Italian ports if the Maltese government refused to take the ship.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas described the situation as an urgent “humanitarian imperative," and called on Italian and Maltese authorities to provide care to the stranded refugees on the ship.

"For the (European) Commission, there is first and foremost a humanitarian imperative. We are talking about people. Over 600 people including unaccompanied minors. The priority of both the Italian and Maltese authorities should be ensuring these people receive the care they need," he said at a news conference.

"We call on all involved to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people on board the Aquarius vessel may be safely disembarked as soon as possible," Schinas added.

The Commission noted that international law obliged the country coordinating the search and rescue operation - in this case Italy - to pick the port to which the vessel should go.

In a statement, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) also "appealed to concerned governments to allow the immediate disembarkation of hundreds of people stranded in the Mediterranean since Saturday."  

The refugee agency’s special envoy for migrants in the Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, stressed that "people are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly." 

"Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between States should be looked at later," he said in the statement.   

Aquarius is currently between Malta and Sicily, waiting for a secure port.   

“Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,” Salvini said on his Facebook page. “Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no.”