Italy sends 2 ships to help bring migrants to Spain

French President Emmanuel Macron blasted Italy for its "irresponsibility" on Tuesday after it turned away a rescue boat carrying African migrants, exposing deep tensions in the European Union over the issue.
The decision by Italy to stop the Aquarius rescue boat landing at the weekend with 629 migrants on board has created the first serious clash between the country's new far-right/populist government and its EU partners.
During a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Macron accused Italy's leaders of "cynicism and irresponsibility" and said they had broken international maritime law by refusing the boat the right to dock.
"In cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond," spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said in unusually harsh criticism by Paris of its southern neighbour.
For years, Italy has pleaded with its EU partners for help with a massive influx of arrivals from Africa that has seen 700,000 people cross the Mediterranean and land in the country since 2013.
Under existing rules, countries where migrants first arrive are required to process their asylum requests, placing the burden on Italy in particular, as well as fellow southern countries Greece and Spain.
EU leaders in December set an end-of-June deadline for an overhaul of these so-called "Dublin rules", but they have been in deadlock for two years and there is little sign of a breakthrough.
Attempts to distribute refugees around the bloc's 28 members have consistently failed, with the surge in immigration fuelling anti-immigration, far-right political parties across Europe.
An Italian suggestion last year that rescue boats should be able to land migrants in other ports along the Mediterranean, such as those in France, was also rejected by its EU partners.
The new government in Rome, which includes the far-right League party, came to power pledging to stop the arrivals and carry out mass deportations that could see hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants expelled.
Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the League leader, said last week that he would not allow Italy to become "Europe's refugee camp".
He has also taken aim at Mediterranean island Malta for failing to allow in rescue boats and has criticised French reinforcements at its border with Italy which result in many migrants being turned back.
- EU foundations at risk? -
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel faced serious pressure on Tuesday from conservative allies in her coalition to take a firmer line on immigration which would also see migrants turned back at the border.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, from Merkel's Bavarian allies CSU, cancelled plans to present his "master plan" which was expected to propose toughening controls.
Merkel has resisted this because it would shift the problem to Germany's neighbours -- Austria in particular-- and she has pleaded for burden-sharing and a new EU force to police the bloc's external borders.
"I?ll tell you bluntly: if we cannot come up with a response to the migration challenges the very foundations of the EU will be at stake," she warned last week.
Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have consistently either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under a contested EU quota system.
The issue is set to figure prominently at a June 28-29 summit in Brussels where EU members were supposed to be unveiling a blueprint for reforming and deepening links between the 19 countries that share the euro currency.
Macron has pushed for greater integration, but the creation of a new eurosceptic and far-right government in Rome had been expected to complicate efforts even before Tuesday's flare-up.
"You can't create a precedent that will enable one European country to offload onto other European countries," French spokesman Griveaux said on Tuesday. "We need to show solidarity, which Italy has not shown."
A spokesman for Macron's Republic on the Move party said earlier that the Italian government's policy was "sickening."
"The position, the line of the Italian government is sickening. It's unacceptable to play politics with human lives which is what is happening at the moment," Gabriel Attal told the Public Senat channel.
The 629 migrants on board the Aquarius ship -- including pregnant women and scores of children -- were heading for Spain on Tuesday after being rescued off the Libyan coast over the weekend.
Spain's new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stepped in on Monday, offering the boat safe harbour in the eastern port city of Valencia.
He said there was a moral "obligation to help to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe."
Italy dispatched two ships Tuesday to help take 629 migrants stuck off its shores on the days-long voyage to Spain in what is forecast to be bad weather, after the new populist government refused them safe port in a dramatic bid to force Europe to share the burden of unrelenting arrivals.
The rescue ship Aquarius has been stuck since Saturday in international waters off the coast of Italy and Malta, both of which have denied it entry. The ship has 629 migrants including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and six pregnant women.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders, which operates the Aquarius with SOS Mediterranee, urged both Italy and Malta to reconsider their refusal to allow the stranded migrants landfall and then safe passage by other means to Spain, which has responded to the plight with an offer of safe harbor. The aid group said the migrants were “exhausted and stressed” and warned of severe health risks to a number of the passengers during the 1,500-kilometer journey, expected to take three to four days.
Italy’s new anti-migrant, right-wing interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is making good on a campaign pledge to close Italian ports to non-governmental organizations that pick up migrants at sea, which he has likened to taxi services for migrant smugglers.
Salvini, whose League is part of the populist coalition that took office this month, promised voters that other European countries would be made to share the burden of caring for asylum-seekers arriving in Italy on unseaworthy boats mostly from lawless Libya, while taking particular aim at the aid vessels.
“These are all foreign ships flying foreign flags that bring this human cargo to Italy,” Salvini told private television La7 on Monday. “We have hosted 650,000 migrants in recent years alone, all of whom pass by Malta, an EU country, and the government says, ‘Ciao, Ciao, go to Italy.’ ... I am happy to have given a small, first response.”
While Salvini turned away the Aquarius, an Italian Coast Guard vessel with more than 900 migrants rescued in seven operations is expected to reach Italy’s shores on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, hundreds of migrants aboard the Aquarius were being transferred Tuesday afternoon to ships operated by the Italian navy and coast guard, which are then to accompany the aid ship to the Spanish port of Valencia. Many remained on the deck of the overcrowded rescue ship and their safety was at risk for the longer voyage given the forecast of bad weather, said SOS Mediterranee spokeswoman Mathilde Auvillain
Fresh provisions -- including 950 bottles of water, 800 boxes of noodles and snacks, blankets, hats and socks -- were delivered to the Aquarius on Tuesday, the charity said.
Officials in Valencia said they expected the ship to arrive in three to four days, depending on when they depart and weather conditions.
The emergency was prompting vastly different reactions in European capitals.
While Spain’s foreign minister said he hoped its gesture of solidarity would help push other EU members to re-examine migrant policy at a summit later this month, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Italy’s cynicism and irresponsibility for leaving the migrants at sea, while also deflecting criticism for not allowing the ship to dock in France.
Macron’s spokesman, Benjamin Grivaux said France doesn’t want to “start a precedent” that would allow some European countries to breach international laws and rely on other EU member states. But he quoted Macron as telling Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting: “If any ship was closer to France’s shores, it could obviously dock on the French coast.”
Spanish Foreign Minister Joseph Borrel said late Monday that “Spain has made a gesture that aims to trigger a European dynamic to stop looking away, allowing one (EU member) to cope with the problem while the rest of us pass the buck.”
The new Spanish foreign minister said the decision to offer a docking port in the eastern city of Valencia had been a “personal and direct” move by the country’s new prime minister, the Socialist Pedro Sanchez.
Hungary’s radically anti-immigrant prime minister praised Salvini’s move. Viktor Orban said his initial reaction to the news was a sigh of “Finally!” He called it “a great moment which may finally bring changes in Europe’s migration policies.”
Many Spanish regions and cities have offered to provide long-term support to the migrants, said Valencia’s regional vice president, Monica Oltra. The Red Cross was preparing shelter and medical assistance to meet immediate needs on their arrival.
Doctors without Borders expressed particular concern for patients who had been resuscitated and risked developing “significant pulmonary disease after swallowing sea water.” Another 21 patients suffered severe chemical burns from exposure to sea water mixed with fuel, while others risk pneumonia and yet others need immediate surgery for orthopedic issues.
SOS Mediterannee also said that removing the Aquarius risked lives.
“People are still fleeing Libya while the Aquarius is away from the search and rescue area in the Central Mediterranean, where rescue capacities are already totally insufficient,” the charity’s vice president, Sophie Beau, said.