Migrant rescue vessel declines Spain's offer to dock in Algeciras

Open Arms says conditions for 107 migrants on board too dire to make 6-day journey to the Spanish port.

    Open Arms had picked the migrants, most of whom are African, off the coast of Libya [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]
    Open Arms had picked the migrants, most of whom are African, off the coast of Libya [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

    A Spanish charity operating a migrant rescue boat stranded off the coast of Italy has rejected Spain's offer to dock in Algeciras, citing a "humanitarian emergency" faced by more than 100 people on board.

    Open Arms' spokeswoman Laura Lanuza on Sunday said that delaying disembarkation by another six days, the time it would take to reach the port in southern Spain, may put the safety of the migrants and the crew at risk.

    The migrants, most of whom are African, were picked up by the Open Arms vessel off the coast of Libya in the past two weeks and have been waiting to disembark on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.

    "We are in a state of extreme humanitarian emergency. What they need is to be disembarked now," Lanuza said. "It is unthinkable to navigate for six days; that is what it would take for us to arrive at Algeciras."

    The rescue group's decision continues the standoff with Italy's far-right Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini, who had ordered his officials to not let the vessel enter Italian waters. 

    On Saturday though, Salvini made a partial concession by allowing 27 minors to leave the boat, saying he agreed at the insistence of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

    Earlier on Sunday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a statement that the port of Algeciras was "ready to receive the Open Arms boat".

    "Spain always acts on humanitarian emergencies. It is necessary to establish an orderly and supportive European solution, leading the migration challenge with the EU's values of progress and humanism," he posted on Twitter.

    'Desperation has its limits'

    Meanwhile, at least four migrants on board the Open Arms boat, anchored about 275 metres off Lampedusa for 17 days, jumped into the sea on Sunday in a desperate attempt to swim to the shore.

    Several crew members from the boat jumped into the water to stop the migrants, who were wearing life vests, and brought them back on board.

    Open Arms founder Oscar Camps tweeted a video of the migrants' attempt to swim to the shore, saying: "We have been warning for days desperation has its limits."

    In the last two weeks, at least 40 ailing or minor migrants were taken ashore by Open Arms, leaving 107 more on board, according to the organisation.

    Migrants at centre of political rift

    In a Facebook post, far-right leader Salvini hailed Spain's offer to migrants as a victory. "Those who stick it out are the ones who win," he said, adding that any other minister would probably "have given in".

    He later tweeted that Open Arms' refusal of Spain's offer was "incredible and unacceptable".

    Salvini also renewed his attack on the charity, accusing it of lying about the conditions on board and calling their decision to remain in Italian waters "a political statement".

    Salvini - reuters
    Italy's Minister of Interior and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini rose to power on an anti-migrant stance [File: Yara Nardi/Reuters]

    Salvini rose to popularity on a hardline anti-migrant stance and has repeatedly faced off with ships carrying rescued migrants.

    But the Open Arms standoff has laid bare the split between Salvini's anti-migrant League and the 5-Star Movement, which govern Italy together. 

    Salvini, who is also the deputy prime minister, is seeking to end Conte's populist coalition with a no-confidence vote and early election that he hopes would make him the prime minister. 

    In an open letter last week, Conte accused Salvini of disloyalty and using immigration for political gain. 

    France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg said earlier this week they would help relocate the migrants. The offer would take place once the ship docked in Algeciras, the Spanish government said in a statement.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies