HUNDREDS of migrants marooned at sea for days after Italy and Malta refused them entry were last night heading for Spain where the prime minister offered them safe harbour.
Many were transferred from the overcrowded Aquarius, operated by aid group SOS Méditerranée, to an Italian navy warship and a coastguard vessel.
The rescue mission has come amid forecasts of deteriorating weather conditions on the route to Valencia. Spanish officials said they expected the ships to arrive in the port in two or three days.
Yesterday the Red Cross was preparing shelter and medical assistance to meet immediate needs on arrival.
The 629 passengers — including 123 unaccompanied minors and several pregnant women — had been left in limbo in the Mediterranean since Saturday. The crisis came after Italy’s new right-wing interior minister made good on a pledge to close the country’s ports to non-governmental organisations that pick up migrants at sea. Matteo Salvini, whose League is part of the populist coalition that took office this month, likened aid ships to ‘taxi services for migrant smugglers’.
Josep Borrell, Spain’s new foreign minister, said the decision to accept the migrants will help push EU leaders to address migration at a summit later this month. ‘We have made a gesture that aims to trigger a European dynamic to stop looking away, leaving one to cope while the rest of us pass the buck,’ he added.
The offer was a direct move by Spain’s newly-elected Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. Many Spanish regions have offered to provide long-term support to the migrants.