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Italy, Malta Close Ports To Migrant Rescue Ship; Spain Takes It In


Spain has offered to open its ports to a ship carrying more than 600 migrants, including more than a hundred unaccompanied minors - this, after Italy and Malta refused to do so. As Lucia Benavides reports, the ship arrives as Spain is seeing an increase in migrants.

LUCIA BENAVIDES: Video footage from Spanish paper El Pais shows migrants crammed on the deck of the Aquarius, T-shirts wrapped around their heads to protect from the beating sun. A woman wearing a Doctors Without Borders vest speaks through a loudspeaker as she holds up a map.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are here in between Malta and Italy, and we are waiting here for the safe place for you, OK?

BENAVIDES: That space place appears to be Spain. The country's new prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, issued a statement on Monday offering to allow the Aquarius to dock in Valencia. He said it's Spain's duty to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. This comes as Spain faces an increase in arrivals by sea, up 55 percent compared to this time last year, according to the U.N. migration agency. Italy has seen hundreds of thousands of migrants reach its shores since 2014, and many Italians say they've been left alone to deal with the crisis. Spain's decision was welcomed by Italy, whose coalition government includes a right-wing, anti-immigrant party. One of their leading politicians declared this a turning point in Europe's migration crisis, with other countries more willing to take in refugees who cross the Mediterranean. At a rally on June 3, Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, listed the reasons people elected him.


MATTEO SALVINI: (Speaking Italian).


BENAVIDES: "And most of all, for defending our borders," he says to large applause. This year, migrant arrivals in Italy have dropped, down 77 percent, according to the U.N. migration agency. Some say that's partly due to two things - a controversial deal made with Libya in 2016 to intercept migrants leaving its shores and investigations into NGO search and rescues that accused them of aiding illegal immigration, sometimes detaining their boats. Immigration lawyer Violeta Moreno-Lax spoke over Skype.

VIOLETA MORENO-LAX: So there are two increases that we are witnessing right now. That's the flow via the western Mediterranean. The other new phenomenon is crossings via the Black Sea.

BENAVIDES: Moreno-Lax says the western Mediterranean route refers to the boats leaving Morocco and Algeria for Spain. And the increase has not gone unnoticed. Almost every week, there's a story in the local papers about Spain's maritime service rescuing hundreds of migrants. Spanish reporters on board the ship Aquarius said people's faces lit up at the news that Spain would let them dock. But the trip could last a few days, and plans are being made so that migrants can be picked up by various ships that would take them to Spanish shores.

For NPR News, I'm Lucia Benavides in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "BALABARISTAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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