More than 600 migrants stranded aboard a rescue ship in the Mediterranean face another four days at sea after being denied entry to ports in Italy and Malta.
The refugees will be transferred to other vessels to sail to Spain as part of a rescue operation, after both countries denied the boat permission to dock, arguing they have already accepted their fair share of refugees.
Humanitarian groups said the decision is putting politics before people’s safety, forcing them to endure further hardship after an already harrowing journey from north Africa.
The 629 migrants on board include 134 children and seven pregnant women, NGOs operating the boat said.
Doctors Without Borders, which is operating the Aquarius alongside SOS Mediterrannean, said Italy wanted to shift at least some of the migrants onto other vessels and then head together in a convoy towards the Spanish port of Valencia.
Spain unexpectedly offered on Monday to take in the migrants, who were picked up off Libya’s coast over the weekend, but the Aquarius had still not moved more than 16 hours later, as Italian authorities work out the logistics of the trip.
Fresh water and food were running low aboard the vessel by Monday afternoon and fresh supplies had to be brought from Italy and Malta.
“This plan would mean already exhausted rescued people would endure 4 more days travel at sea,” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Twitter.
“MSF calls for people’s safety to come before politics.”
It added: “The better option would be to disembark the rescued people in the nearest port after which they can be transferred to Spain or other safe countries for further care and legal processing.”
Alessandro Porro, a member of the rescue team aboard the Aquarius, told HuffPost UK: “It was very dark [when we rescued them] and we could only hear their screams until a helicopter arrived and lit up the scene.”
Some people had to be resuscitated after they fell into the water after the boat carrying them broke apart. Many are suffering from fuel burns as a result, and most are dehydrated.
Porro said: “At the moment we are like an ambulance that has been stopped and we don’t know where to go.”
Meanwhile in Rome, hundreds of people gathered at a demonstration in protest of their government’s decision to stop the Aquarius from docking.
Problems for the vessel began when Italy’s Matteo Salvini, recently appointed as interior minister as part of a new right-wing government, closed the country’s ports to the boat, after promising voters he would crack down on immigration.
Writing on his Facebook page, Salvini said: “Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration.”
He said Malta should accept the Aquarius instead, but the government in Valletta said the rescued migrants fall under Italy’s jurisdiction, as they were picked up the migrants in Libyan waters.