Portugal said Tuesday that it would take in 10 migrants from the Aquarius rescue ship, as European countries battled to defuse a fresh row over asylum seekers picked up in the Mediterranean.
The charity that runs the ship, SOS Mediterranee, had announced Monday that it was heading to the French port of Marseille carrying 58 migrants rescued off Libya.
The NGO said that docking in Marseille, where it is based, was its ‘only option’ after Italy's populist government repeatedly refused the Aquarius access to its ports.
But the French government had signalled it was reluctant to welcome the boat, saying it should dock at the nearest safe port to its current location near conflict-torn Libya.
Paris was seeking a ‘European solution’ to share out the migrants, similar to that found in August when five different countries took in passengers the Aquarius picked up during the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.
On Tuesday a French presidential source suggested the migrants should disembark in Malta, the EU country closest to the ship's current location.
‘We are clear on the fact that it shouldn't spend four to five days at sea going towards France or Spain or anywhere,’ the source said.
‘It needs to dock soon and it is close to Malta at the moment.’
Shortly afterwards, the Portuguese government said it would take in 10 of the passengers ‘in a united and joint manner with Spain and France’.
Paris and Madrid had yet to confirm their role in the deal, and it was still unknown where the ship would dock.
- Migrant 'taxi service'? -
The Aquarius was at the heart of a blazing diplomatic row in June when it became stranded with more than 600 migrants onboard following a refusal by Italy and Malta to take it in.
It has since been repeatedly turned away by Italy and been forced to stop in Malta and Spain after missions in recent months.
Under a previous deal reached in August, 141 migrants onboard the Aquarius were distributed among France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain.
Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has vowed to block the Aquarius permanently from his country's ports, accusing it of offering a ‘taxi service’ for migrants from Libya to Europe.
His government says Italy has had enough of migrants arriving by boat, with more than 700,000 landing on its shores since 2013.
The numbers have dropped sharply since their peak in 2015, but the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, has warned that the death rate during Mediterranean crossings has soared.
At least 1,730 people have died trying to make the treacherous crossing in flimsy boats this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The Aquarius has become a symbol of bitter divisions in Europe over how to share responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people arriving by boat since 2015.
French President Emmanuel Macron has clashed with the Italian government over its blocking of rescue ships, accusing it of ‘cynicism and irresponsibility’.
He faced criticism at home for not offering safe haven to the Aquarius after it first became stranded in June, though France eventually offered asylum to about 80 rescued migrants.
His aide on Tuesday blasted Rome for blocking a new permanent solution to manage the docking and distribution of migrants rescued by charity boats.
‘It's not moving forward because those who criticise the lack of French or European solidarity, starting with Italy, don't want a permanent, durable mechanism,’ the aide said.
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