A total of 629 men, women and children have been aboard SOS Méditerranée's ship the Aquarius since they were rescued at sea on Saturday night.
After a more than 24 hour standoff between Italy and Malta, both of which refused to give permission for the vessel to dock until Spain eventually offered safe harbour, those rescued have been sleeping on the decks for days and supplies on board are running low.
More than 1,500 kilometres and several days' sailing from the Spanish coast, with weather conditions deteriorating and some of those rescued pregnant or suffering from chemical burns and hypothermia, the French NGO told Italian maritime authorities that it was not safe for them to make the onward journey.
On board the Aquarius on Tuesday. Photo: Kenny Karpov/SOS Mediterranee
Italian authorities delivered food and essentials to the Aquarius on Tuesday morning, SOS Méditerranée said, and dispatched two Italian vessels to collect more than half of the people rescued and sail with them, alongside the Aquarius, to the port of Valencia in south-east Spain.
The transfer operation began at around 2.30 pm on Tuesday, spokesperson Mathilde Auvillain told The Local from Catania, Sicily, with people put aboard motorboats that took them to an Italian coast guard vessel and a military ship.
The Italian coast guard is responsible for getting those aboard to safety because it coordinated the rescue operations that brought them onto the Aquarius on Saturday night, Auvillain explained.
"The Italian coast guard had the responsibility then to give us a port of safety," she said. "Of course, this is not the ideal solution. It’s going to be a very long journey to go to Valencia, but at least it’s a safe place to disembark these people. They deserve a chance to rest where their rights will be respected, because all these people are fleeing a very unsafe place, they are escaping torture, extortion, rape and insecurity in Libya and cannot be sent back."
Fresh supplies aboard the Aquarius. Photo: Kenny Karpov/SOS Mediterranee
Italy's Minister of Transport Danilo Toninelli, who is responsible for the Italian coast guard, called the move "the right political pragmatism that wasn't there before". He said that the government had drawn attention to Malta's refusal to take in migrants and that "we didn't put anyone's life in danger".
The rest of the cabinet also hailed the outcome as a victory for Italy's new government, a coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-immigration League, which has pledged to take a stand against EU migration rules that that they say leave Italy and its Mediterranean neighbours bearing the brunt of Europe's biggest migration crisis since World War Two.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that Italy had "asked for a gesture of solidarity from Europe and this gesture has been made".
The government of France, however, slammed Rome's actions as "cynical and irresponsible", saying that "in cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond".
"They can talk," hit back Italy's Labour Minister and joint deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio. "They should open their ports and we'll send a few people to France."
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Conte, who has called immigration policies a "litmus test" of Italy's relations with the EU, was due to speak to French President Emmanuel Macron later on Tuesday, before heading to Paris for further talks on Friday. The entire bloc will discuss the issue at a European summit on June 28-29th.
As it offered to open its port, Spain joined Italy's calls for the burden to be shared.
"Italy has received an enormous influx of migrants and so far other European countries haven't shown much solidarity," said Spain's foreign minister, Josep Borrell. He said there was a "need for Europeans... to face up, in a united and coordinated manner, to a problem that is a problem for all, and not just for Greece one year and for Italy the next".
Under current EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive. That has put pressure on Italy and Greece, the entry points for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia since 2015.
While Italy's new nationalist interior minister, Matteo Salvini of the League, has vowed to "close the ports" to NGO rescue ships, Italian harbours remain open to Italian coast guard vessels that save people at sea. One such boat, the Diciotti, is due to arrive in Sicily by Wednesday with 937 people on board.
"Italian coast guards have been rescuing people in the Mediterranean sea even further than their zone of competence for years and years and years, they have been saving lives, people, men, women and children for years – so it’s heroic what they have done for all these years," commented SOS Méditerranée's Auvillain.
"Italian coast guards and Italy have done really huge and remarkable work and are an example of solidarity with people in difficulty," she said, adding that the current situation was challenging because "we are in the middle of a political game".
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Photo: Karpov/SOS Mediterranee/AFP