MILAN (AP) — The European Commission said Monday that it is in contact with a number of member states to identify a country willing to take 141 migrants picked up by a rescue ship, after the French aid groups operating the ship appealed for a safe port and Italy said Britain should take responsibility.
Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, who operate the ship Aquarius, said that the health of those rescued in two operations Friday is stable but that many are weak and malnourished. One of the smugglers’ boats, a small wooden craft with 25 migrants, appears to have been at sea for nearly 35 hours, the groups said. Most of the 141 migrants are from Somalia and Eritrea and they include 67 unaccompanied minors.
Italy and Malta, the closest ports, have both refused.
Italy continues to refuse port to humanitarian rescue ships, and the country’s transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, said on Twitter that Britain should take responsibility for the migrants aboard the Aquarius because it sails under the flag of the British territory of Gibraltar. Toninelli said the rescue was coordinated by Libyan authorities and that the ship was in Maltese waters.
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The Malta government said that it has no legal obligation to offer safe harbor to the Aquarius migrants, since it didn’t coordinate the rescue, which took place outside of the search and rescue area it is responsible for.
EU Commission spokeswoman Tove Ernst said in Brussels that the commission is in touch with member states to find a solution, but she couldn’t say how many states were involved in the talks since the situation is changing. 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.”
“As we have done in a number of previous cases, we stand ready to lend full diplomatic support and weight to a swift solution of the incident,” Ernst said.
Doctors Without Borders said in a statement said that European governments are focusing their efforts on “propping up the Libyan JRCC (joint rescue cooperation center)” but that the two rescues Friday underlined the unreliability of that system. Aloys Vimard, Doctors Without Borders coordinator on the Aquarius, said the ship discovered the two boats by chance, even though the Libyans were aware of their distress.
In addition, those rescued reported that five ships had come into their vicinity before the Aquarius and did not offer help.
“It seems the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea is now at stake. Ships might be unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded and denied a place of safety,” Vimard said.