Hundreds of refugees remain stranded in a humanitarian ship at sea after both Italy and Malta refused to open their ports to the vessel and engaged, instead, in a diplomatic spat over the issue.
Italy’s new Interior Minister and leader of the far-right League Party, Matteo Salvini closed Italian ports on Sunday and refused to let in the rescue boat, Aquarius, carrying over 600 refugees.
Instead, he sent a letter to the island-state of Malta, south of Italy, threatening to close all the Italian ports if the Maltese government refuses to take the ship.
The European charity group, SOS Méditerranée, which operates Aquarius, said Sunday that the humanitarian ship has on board 629 refugees, including unaccompanied children and pregnant women mainly from sub-Saharan Africans, who were picked up in six different rescue operations off the coast of Libya.
Salvini said in a statement on Sunday that Malta “cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise international conventions on the protection of human life.”
“That’s why we ask the government in Valletta to take in the Aquarius in order to offer first aid to the migrants on board,” the statement added.
The Maltese government, however, brushed off the request, saying that the operations took place in international waters off Libya and that “Malta is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority in this case.”
The government’s statement also said Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had spoken to Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, underlining “that Malta is acting in full conformity with its international obligations.”
“As such Malta will not take the said vessel in its ports,” the statement added.
Amid the spat, the ship remains stuck in waters of the central Mediterranean—between Malta and Italy.
The SOS Méditerranée’s spokesperson Mathilde Auvillain said the vessel has been instructed to head north after a series of sea rescues and is now awaiting “definitive instructions.”