After turned away by Italy, migrants finally find dry land in Spain

Week after becoming center of political fight, 629 asylum-seekers from 31 countries rescued at sea near Libya dock in Valencia

Migrants descend the Italian coast guard vessel Dattilo upon arrival at the eastern port of Valencia, Spain, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (AP/Alberto Saiz)
Migrants descend the Italian coast guard vessel Dattilo upon arrival at the eastern port of Valencia, Spain, Sunday, June 17, 2018. (AP/Alberto Saiz)

VALENCIA, Spain — An aid group’s ship and two Italian military vessels docked Sunday at the Spanish port of Valencia, ending a weeklong ordeal for hundreds of people who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea only to become pawns in a European political fight.

The Italian coast guard vessel Dattilo was the first of the boats in the convoy bearing 630 migrants to touch land, pulling in just before 7 a.m. The 274 rescued people on board disembarked after medical staff made a preliminary inspection.

The rescue ship Aquarius came in four hours later carrying another 106 migrants. Aid workers awaiting their arrival clapped and cheered as the first passengers walked down the gangway. An Italian navy ship, the Orione, came in shortly after 1 p.m with the remaining 250.

The Aquarius, operated by the aid groups SOS Mediterranee Sea and Doctors Without Borders, was stuck off the coast of Sicily on June 9 when Italy’s new populist government refused it permission to dock and demanded that Malta do so. Malta also refused.

After days of bickering and food and water running low on the ship, Spain stepped in and granted the rescue boat entry with a plan called “Operation Mediterranean Hope.” The 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) journey across the Mediterranean from Sicily to Valencia took nearly a week.

After Spain invited the Aquarius to land, Italy sent the Dattilo and Orione to help transport the migrants.

David Noguera, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Spain, said he was glad Spain welcomed the ship’s passengers, who were picked up off the coast of Libya. He said he is worried that more European nations will close their ports to migrants who are rescued at sea.

The Aquarius rescue ship enters the port of Valencia on June 17, 2018. (AFP/ Pau Barrena)

“I have mixed feelings,” Noguera told The Associated Press as the first boat arrived in Valencia. “I am happy that the journey (for the Aquarius migrants) is over — a journey that was too long — and I am worried for the situation in the Mediterranean and the closing of European ports.”

The migrants were met by emergency workers, health officials, Red Cross volunteers and psychologists at the city’s marina. Each was assigned to a translator, and authorities worked to determine their identities before they were sent to welcome centers.

The first person through the process was a 29-year-old man from South Sudan.

In total so far, there were 31 different nationalities represented, with the largest numbers of people coming from the Sudan, Algeria, Eritrea and Nigeria, according to Spanish authorities. There were also 68 minors, 46 of them traveling without an adult family member.

Valencia emergency official Jorge Suarez said some of the migrants were in a state of shock.

“They are very shaken,” Suarez said. “Put yourself in their position: you get off a ship and the first people who greet you are wearing masks.”

The Italian navy ship Orione enters the port of Valencia on June 17, 2018. (AFP / PAU BARRENA)

Physical exams did not reveal any serious health problems, but many passengers showed signs of exposure to high temperatures. A total of 144 were taken to hospitals for treatment of minor health issues.

David Beversluis, the chief Doctors Without Borders physician on the Aquarius, said several of the rescued women were victims of sexual violence and rape.

“The horrible stories that we hear from people who come out of Libya is gut-wrenching,” he said. “Spending time with people, listening to some of the torturous situations that they’ve been through, was really one of the most challenging parts of the entire operation.”

Spanish authorities are interviewing the migrants on a case-by-case basis to see who may qualify for asylum.

In this file photo taken on May 10, 2018 migrants stand on the deck of the French NGO’s ship Aquarius, as it approaches the Italian coast. (AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI)

Due to their ordeal, the people from the Aquarius were granted authorization to remain in Spain for 45 days before they must begin resolving their legal situations.

“We have to strike a balance between our sensibilities and humanity, and our respect for the law,” said Spain’s migration minister, Magdalena Valerio.

“These people could not be left adrift in the Mediterranean, where they would face death,” she told Spanish radio Cope. “(The EU) must recognize that it needs an immigration policy that these times require.”

Meanwhile, several hundred more migrants were aboard an Italian coast guard vessel off Sicily on Sunday. The passengers came from a series of rescues in recent days, including ones carried out by cargo ships that Italy’s Rome-based search-and-rescue coordination center asked to aid migrant boats in distress.

They also counted 41 migrants who were taken aboard a U.S. Navy vessel on June 12, survivors of a sunken dinghy. A private aid ship said it couldn’t assume the unexpected passengers from Trenton because Italy wasn’t assigning it a port within its navigational capacity.

The rescued people stayed on the Navy boat for several more days before being transferred to the Italian coast guard vessel on Sunday morning.

A migrant reacts on being rescued by the MV Aquarius, after 191 people and two corpses were recovered Friday Jan. 13, 2017, from international waters in the Mediterranean Sea about 22 miles north of Sabrata, Libya. (AP Photo/Sima Diab)

The destination wasn’t immediately announced, but the coast guard said it wouldn’t dock until at least Tuesday.

Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, thanked Spain for taking in the migrants who reached Valencia and said he wished the country would take in “66,629 more.”

Salvini, who heads the right-wing League party, said that if France, Malta and Portugal also open their ports to migrants rescued from smugglers’ unseaworthy boats, “we’ll be happier.”

The refusal by Italy and Malta to allow the Aquarius to dock has reignited a continentwide battle over how to handle immigration.

Under the EU’s asylum laws — currently the subject of a major political dispute and under revision — migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they first enter Europe. In practice, the policy has placed a heavy burden on Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers have arrived in recent years.

People hold a banner reading ‘We don’t want refugees’ during a demonstration called by the far-right political party Espana 2000 (E-2000) against the arrival of the Aquarius rescue ship in Valencia on June 16, 2018. (AFP/ PAU BARRENA)

Spain’s new Socialist government has taken up the cause of the migrants to demonstrate its commitment to protecting human rights.

But overall, the European Union’s 28 members have not agreed on how to handle the influx of refugees and migrants to Europe. The issue has put strong domestic pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, provoked a spat between France and Italy and prompted eastern nations like Hungary and Poland to refuse to take in any migrants.

Immigration will be a top issue at the EU leaders’ June 28-29 summit. Italy’s new government will make any compromises on migration policy even more difficult.

The warmer weather has caused a spike in migration from North Africa to Europe. Spain’s maritime rescue service pulled 1,290 people from several dozen smuggling boats near the Strait of Gibraltar and the Canary Islands from Friday through Sunday. It also recovered four bodies and declared another 43 people missing at sea.

At least 792 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the United Nations. Through the first five months of 2018, some 35,455 migrants reached European shores.

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