By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) – A rescue ship with more than 600 migrants on board was drifting in international waters on Monday as Italy’s new interior minister doubled down on his decision to stop it docking in an Italian port.
Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League party who campaigned vowing to stop to the mass influx of migrants from Africa, blocked the ship, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders, over the weekend.
“Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,” Salvini said on Facebook on Monday. “Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no.”
The Aquarius rescue ship has 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women on board.
Pictures issued by SOS Mediterranee showed hundreds of Africans huddled aboard, including a young girl wrapped in a blanket in the arms of a rescue worker. The charity said the ship had enough supplies to feed the migrants at least for another day.
By law, it will be difficult for Italy to refuse the boat a safe haven, as its own Coast Guard coordinated the rescues. Coast Guard vessels picked up more than 280 migrants in three different rescues and transferred them to the Aquarius to be taken to safety.
Salvini said Italy should not be the only country taking in boats arriving from North Africa, urging Malta, which is closer to Libya, to allow the ship to disembark.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he told his Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Conte, he would not take the ship.
“We are concerned at Italy authorities’ directions given to Aquarius on high seas. They manifestly go against international rules, and risk creating a dangerous situation for all those involved,” Muscat said on Twitter.
Malta allows a small number of emergency evacuations from rescue ships, but has always refused large numbers.
The small island nation with fewer than a half million inhabitants says it already takes in more refugees per capita than Italy, a European Union partner. Italy has taken in more than 600,000 boat migrants since 2014.
League lawmaker Nicola Molteni said blocking the ship was meant as a message to the European Union which the party says has failed to help Italy deal with the migrant crisis.
“We want to send a clear message,” Molteni said in a newspaper interview. “Either other ports open up (to migrants) — and I’m thinking of Barcelona, Marseille and Malta — or this (standoff) will go on.”
(This story has been refiled to correct typo in headline)
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)