Spain sends navy to save migrants as Italian justice intervenes

Madrid (AFP) – Spain on Tuesday deployed a naval patrol boat to pick up migrants on a charity rescue boat that has been stranded off Italy’s Lampedusa island for days after numerous people jumped overboard in a desperate bid to swim ashore.

But no sooner had the Audaz, with a crew of 62, departed Rota in southwestern Spain during the early evening than an Italian prosecutor ordered the migrants be disembarked in Sicily.

Prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio also ordered the Open Arms charity vessel preventatively seized after inspecting the Spanish boat on which migrants have spent 19 days and “given the difficult situation on board”, a judicial source said.

Against the backdrop of a major political crisis in Italy, Patronaggio intervened as part of his probe into alleged kidnapping and refusing to obey orders targeting far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

But Salvini hit back on Facebook, saying: “If anybody thinks they can scare me with the umpteenth complaint and wants a trial, they’re mistaken.”

Madrid announced it was dispatching the patrol boat shortly after 15 migrants jumped into the water — some without life jackets — after days on board within swimming distance of Lampedusa, which Salvini has closed to migrant rescue ships.

They were “rescued and evacuated to Lampedusa,” said a spokeswoman for the NGO Proactiva Open Arms that owns the ship, on which the long wait has led to fights and suicide threats as tempers fray.

The charity warned the situation was “out of control,” with some of the migrants stuck for 19 days after being rescued at sea off the coast of Libya, many suffering post-traumatic stress.

The Audaz was expected to take three days to reach Lampedusa. It would then escort the Open Arms vessel to Palma de Mallorca in Spain’s Balearic Islands, the government said in a statement.

The navy would look after the migrants from the Open Arms vessel, which has been anchored since Thursday off Lampedusa, seeking permission to dock.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted: “With this measure Spain will this week solve the humanitarian emergency.”

– ‘Being firm’ –

There were initially 147 mainly African migrants on the ship but as the days passed, some were evacuated for medical care and all minors were allowed to disembark.

Over 80 are left on board.

Six European Union countries — France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg — have offered to take them all in.

But Salvini still refused to allow migrant rescue vessels to dock as part of his hardline policies.

“Being firm is the only way to stop Italy from becoming Europe’s refugee camp again,” he tweeted.

Compounding his refusal has been the political crisis in Rome.

Salvini has pulled his party out of Italy’s ruling coalition, hoping to topple the 14-month-old government and trigger early elections, which polls suggest his anti-immigrant League party and its right-wing allies could win.

On Tuesday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced he would resign.

– Spain slams Italy –

To try to break the standoff, Spain at the weekend offered up its southern port of Algeciras, which the NGO said could “not be achieved” due to the distance and tensions on board.

Madrid then suggested Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, nearer but still around 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from Lampedusa.

The charity described the offer as “totally incomprehensible” and continued to demand the ship be allowed to dock in Lampedusa.

Spain’s Defence Minister Margarita Robles slammed Italy — and particularly Salvini — for the situation.

“What Salvini is doing in relationship with the Open Arms is a disgrace to humanity as a whole,” she said Monday.

Salvini “has shown he doesn’t care about human lives”, she added Tuesday.

Shortly after he came to power in June 2018, Sanchez made international headlines by agreeing to allow 630 migrants stranded on another charity rescue ship, the Aquarius, to disembark in Spain. Both Italy and Malta had refused entry to the migrants.

His Socialist government then allowed the Open Arms to take migrants it had rescued on the Mediterranean to Spain, most recently in December 2018. But after that Spain had refused entry to migrant rescue boats.

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