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Spain offers to take refugee boat turned away by Italy

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Spain has said it is ready to allow a boat stranded off the coast of Italy carrying almost 150 migrants to dock, in a move that highlights the growing tensions between Madrid and Rome on immigration.

The government of Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s caretaker prime minister, said on Sunday that it was preparing the southern Andalucían port of Algeciras to accept the Open Arms, an NGO ship carrying 147 migrants. The Spanish vessel has been waiting at sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa for two weeks in difficult weather with worsening living conditions aboard.

The boat has become the latest focus of the political battle between Italy’s warring coalition parties. Interior minister and leader of the rightwing League party Matteo Salvini has refused to let it dock, triggering a furious war of words with his coalition partners the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

Mr Sánchez’s Socialist government said in a statement: “The caretaker prime minister has taken this decision given the refusal of Matteo Salvini to permit disembarkation in Italy and the difficulties put forward by other Mediterranean countries.”

Madrid added that it would also consider the possibility of taking action in the EU or at an international human rights or maritime law organisation “against the Italian government’s attitude with respect to the reception of the migrants aboard the Open Arms”.

“The prime minister has taken this decision because of the situation of emergency on board,” the Spanish statement said. “The inconceivable response of the Italian authorities, and in particular Matteo Salvini, interior minister, of closing all its doors . . . has led Spain to once again lead the response to a humanitarian crisis.”

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The Spanish government called on Italy to allow the migrants to disembark, arguing that the Italian government now had a guarantee that they would be accepted by other EU countries, including Spain. But Madrid said that it had received no indication that the disembarkation would take place, despite a series of recent contacts with Rome.

A Spanish official confirmed that if the Open Arms docked in Spain, the migrants would ultimately be distributed between various EU countries.

Mr Sánchez, who is seeking to win parliamentary support to form a stable government — notably from the radical-left Podemos party — had been criticised for not taking a more decisive step to take in the migrants. Some of his critics on the left hit out at his earlier tentative moves, given his decision last year to take in 629 migrants on the rescue boat Aquarius after Italy refused the vessel access.

In its statement on Sunday, Mr Sánchez’s government said Spain was by a considerable margin the EU country that carried out most rescues in the Mediterranean, taking more than 60,000 people to Spanish ports in 2018 and 2019.

Madrid emphasised that it already faced an influx of migrants in the western Mediterranean, while Italy has taken a hardline stance towards migrants in the central Mediterranean area.

In the year to August 4, more than 13,500 migrants arrived in Spain by sea, according to International Organisation for Migration figures — compared with less than 4,000 people arriving in Italy. The number of people taking the eastern route to Greece was the highest, at less than 19,000.

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Via Financial Times

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