Italy asks Britain to take in migrant rescue boat with Gibraltar flag

Migrants picked up the Doctors Without Borders Sea boat the Aquarius. 141 were rescued and are now being refused permission to dock in Italy and Malta. Pic Guglielmo Mangiapane SOS Mediterranee

A ship carrying almost 150 migrants who were rescued in Mediterranean Sea is searching for a place to dock, after being denied entry to ports in Malta and Italy, its owners said. She said "it could of course be the case that in theory a flag state of a rescue ship could be considered a potential location for disembarkation, but this might not be possible in practice". "We're asking them to be responsible and find a safe port in the Mediterranean", she said, accusing Italy and Malta of flouting worldwide maritime law.

More than 650,000 migrants have come to Italy's shores since 2014, prompting Rome to accuse its European Union peers of not sharing the burden of caring for those who arrive on the bloc's southern border.

On Sunday, SOS Mediterranee and MSF said the Libyan coastguard coordinated their rescue activities, but refused to tell them where they could take the migrants.

The Aquarius, one of the last two NGO vessels still operating in the central Mediterranean. was the first charity ship to be turned away from Italian ports in early June, before being taken in by Spain.

Italian transport minister Danilo Toninelli said on Monday that the United Kingdom should take in the migrants on board the Aquarius as it was a vessel flying under a Gibraltar flag and now in Maltese waters.

Italy called on Britain to welcome the Aquarius because it was registered in Gibraltar, but the British territory on Spain's southern coast said it should go to an Italian port.

A European Commission spokesperson said all diplomatic channels were being employed to find a country willing to take the migrants, . "The requests for the vessel to enter our ports are unwarranted and without legal standing", it said in a statement. Those rescued in recent years have said they receive scanty rations while kept in Libya to await the opportunity to leave on human smugglers' unseaworthy boats.

Cargo and other commercial vessels often have plucked migrants to safety from deflating rubber dinghies and rickety wooden boats.

On Monday, sources at the Spanish prime minister's office said that the country's ports were not the safest destination for the vessel, according to local media.

Though departures from Libya have fallen dramatically this year, people smugglers are still pushing some boats out to sea and an estimated 720 people died in June and July when charity ships were mainly absent, Amnesty International estimates.

Protracted feuds between EU states over how to handle immigrants have thrown the issue back onto the European agenda. That is despite overall Mediterranean arrivals having dropped sharply since the 2015 peak when a million people arrived.

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