Spain welcomes disputed Aquarius migrants

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The Spanish port of Valencia has seen the arrival of the first ship carrying migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea and turned away by Italy and Malta.

The first of three vessels entered harbour soon after dawn. Some of the 629 rescued near Libya last weekend by the Aquarius ship began disembarking.

Health officials and interpreters are on hand to offer support.

Spain’s new socialist government has promised free healthcare and says it will investigate each asylum case.

“It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said earlier this week.

He has adopted a migrant-friendly stance since taking up his post two weeks ago.

An Italian coast guard ship, the Dattilo, entered the port of Valencia at 06:20 (04:20 GMT). It was carrying 274 migrants, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

On Valencia’s quayside, 1,000 Red Cross workers were on hand to greet the migrants as they stepped off the ship. There were also police officers drafted in specifically to handle their arrival.

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A second Italian ship, the Orione, and the Aquarius itself are expected to dock later on Sunday morning, carrying the rest of the group.

Officials say the rescued migrants include 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 younger children under the age of 13 and seven pregnant women.

The Aquarius sparked a major diplomatic row when it was left stranded on Monday.

Italy’s populist coalition – and in particular its interior minister, the right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini – has taken a hard-line approach to immigration and refused to let it dock.

Mr Salvini says it is unfair that countries on the frontline of the EU have had to carry most of the burden of handling the migrant influx.

He said Malta should accept the Aquarius, but it refused, arguing that it fell under Italian jurisdiction.

Valencia’s Mayor Joan Ribo, who has offered the ship a safe berth, described Italy’s decision to turn the vessel away as inhuman.

He told the BBC that he hoped the city’s actions would act as an “electric shock” and lead to reform of Europe’s migration policies.

Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Italy of “irresponsibility” for turning the Aquarius away. His government will work with Spain to deal with the migrants.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said that any migrants who wish to go to France would be allowed to do, providing they had a legitimate claim to asylum.

The migrants aboard the Aquarius spent 20 hours in overcrowded rubber dinghies before being rescued. They have since spent a week aboard the rescue ship in rough seas – with many suffering seasickness.

Migration reform is likely to be a key topic at a meeting of EU leaders later this month, as many countries continue to grapple with the political fallout caused by an influx of migrants in recent years.

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