SPAIN: The first of 629 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea by the charity ship Aquarius have reached Spanish port of Valencia after being rejected by Italy and Malta.
The case highlights rifts in the EU over how to deal with huge numbers of people fleeing to Europe.
The first of three vessels docked at the port soon after dawn. Some of the 629 rescued near Libya last weekend by the Aquarius ship began disembarking. The migrants rescued by the Aquarius have spent a week in rough seas, many suffering seasickness.
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. Spain, which declared its willingness to accept the ship, has said it would treat the migrants “totally normally” according to current EU rules.
“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, Asna, an Italian news agency reported.
A second Italian ship, the Orione, and the Aquarius itself are expected to dock later on Sunday morning, carrying the rest of the group.
According to the Dublin Regulation, migrants can apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter. If their application is rejected, they can be returned to their country of origin if it is deemed safe by authorities.
A rescuer on board the Aquarius has slammed the decision by Italy to send the ship on, which inflicted a further 700 nautical-mile (1,296-kilometer) trip on people who were already traumatized and in some cases injured after spending 20 hours on the open sea in overcrowded rubber dinghies.
“We have the most vulnerable of the vulnerable on the ship right now, and instead of being taken care of and supported, they’re being used … for some idiotic exercise of political influence“, Max Avis, the deputy search-and-rescue chief on the ship, told Reuters news agency.
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 as “inhuman“, to turn the vessel away.
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.