Having fled their home countries, risked drowning, and made it on board a search and rescue ship, more than 600 migrants and refugees were left stranded overnight in the Mediterranean — because of a diplomatic stand-off between Italy and Malta. 

Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the country’s right-wing, anti-immigration League party, appeared to be taking the first steps in his pledged crackdown on migration, by refusing the humanitarian ship permission to dock.

Some 629 refugees were trapped on board the Aquarius, operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and German charity SOS Mediterranee, including 123 unaccompanied minors between 13 and 17 years old, and 11 younger children, according to the charities.

Take action: Refugee? Migrant? Human Being. Show Your Support for All People — No Matter Where They Were Born

Seven pregnant women were also among the passengers, as well as 15 people with serious chemical burns, and several critical drowning and hypothermia patients, according to MSF and SOS

Spain's new prime minister Pedro Sanchez announced on Monday afternoon that Spain would give "safe harbour" to the Aquarius, and the ship will now dock in Valencia.

Malta's prime minister Joseph Muscat welcomed Spain's decision, after "Italy broke international rules and caused a standoff." 

"Malta will be sending fresh supplies to the vessel," he added. "We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue." 

Both MSF and SOS had warned earlier on Monday morning that those on board were “stable for now but unnecessary delay to disembarkation in safe port puts vulnerable patients at risk." SOS added that their "conditions risk worsening during the day." 

"They are becoming more anxious and asking when they will be able to reach shore," SOS added early on Monday afternoon. 

Both MSF and SOS have been tweeting updates about the ship’s progress, with a tweet from SOS on Sunday night saying that they had “received instructions from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre to standby in our current position which is 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta.” 

“Our only objective is the disembarkation in a port of safety of the people that we rescued yesterday in difficult conditions,” SOS said on Twitter.

Read more: 100 Migrants Drown in Deadliest Mediterrenean Boat Disaster of the Year

Those on board the ship were picked up in six different rescue operations off the coast of Libya, with 229 of them rescued from two rubber boats. 

But the rescue operation “turned critical when one boat broke apart in the darkness, leaving over 40 people in the water,” according to SOS. 

The Aquarius then took on a further 400 people from Italian navy ships, Italian coast guard ships, and merchant vessels,” SOS said on Twitter.

“Most of them are sleeping outside,” journalist Anelise Borges told the BBC from onboard the ship, speaking about the rescued migrants and refugees. “They are obviously exhausted, they have been exposed to the elements, they have been at sea for 20-30 hours prior to their rescue.”

Read more: Ai Weiwei Says 'The Only Solution to the Refugee Crisis Will Be a Human Solution'

“They are fragile and we have yet to learn what’s going to happen to them,” she added. 

The migration route across the Mediterranean is one of the most widely used routes into Europe, with most migrants and refugees crossing from North Africa into Europe entering via Italy. 

But earlier this month, Salvini vowed that Sicily would no longer be the “refugee camp of Europe.” 

He has also previously accused humanitarian organisations that carry out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean as being connected to human traffickers, reported the BBC. Salvini is also reported to be considering action against these humanitarian organisations; and has pledged to deport 500,000 illegal migrants. 

Read more: For 4th Straight Year, 3,000 Migrants Have Drowned in Mediterranean Sea

“Malta takes in nobody,” he said on Sunday in a Facebook post. “France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. Well, that means all of Europe is minding its own private interest." 

"Starting today, Italy will commence to say NO to human trafficking, NO to the business of clandestine immigration," he added. 

Salvini wanted Malta to take the migrants and refugees aboard the Aquarius, but Malta also refused, saying that it fell under Italy’s jurisdiction, according to the BBC

Earlier this month, the Mediterranean witnessed its deadliest migration disaster of the year, when at least 100 migrants and refugees drowned after their boat failed on June 2.

The Mediterranean crossing has become the deadliest migration route in the world, according to the International Organisation of Migrants (IOM), with more than 3,000 people having died making the crossing every year for the past four years. 

Read more: Ai Weiwei's Larger-Than-Life Sculpture Makes a Bold Statement About the Refugee Crisis

“Behind these numbers, men, women, and children have lost their lives while pursuing an uncertain dream,” said Lorena Lando, IOM Chief of Mission in Tunisia, where most of the victims were from. “Our thoughts are with families and loved ones to whom we present our sincere condolences and assure of our most absolute solidarity.” 

People from across the Middle East and Africa are trying to reach Europe, to escape persecution, conflict, famines, droughts, economic instability, and lack of economic opportunity. 

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals. Almost all of the 17 goals deal in one way or another with the structural problems that lie behind the world’s growing migration — including hunger and food security, peace, justice, reduced inequalities, health, and shelter. You can join us by taking action on these issues and more here


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Over 600 People Stranded on Migrant Rescue Ship Because No One Would Let Them Dock

By Imogen Calderwood