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Italy shuts ports to Aquarius ship carrying over 600 refugees

UN refugee agency calls on Italian authorities to allow MV Aquarius to dock after populist government refuses it access.

A rescue boat carrying more than 600 refugees and migrants has been told to stay put in the Mediterranean Sea by Italian maritime authorities.

The MV Aquarius, which is operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), was as of Monday holding its position 27 nautical miles from Malta and 35 nautical miles from Italy, after the new Italian populist government refused it docking rights on its territory.

"From now also Italy begins to say NO to the traffic of human beings, NO to the business of illegal immigration," said Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party and the country's new interior minister.

Italy has asked that those on board are made to disembark in Malta, a fellow European Union (EU) member state. Malta, however, said it had nothing to do with the rescue operation, opening the prospect of a diplomatic standoff between the two EU allies.

The boat is carrying 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women, according to MSF. 

In a thinly-veiled attack on the Italian government on Sunday, MSF said politics were "being placed above people's lives."

"The priority must be the importance of the well-being [and] safety of the people on board," it said.

The UN refugee agency also called on politicians to quickly find a resolution.

"States and actors involved should rapidly find solutions to allow migrants and refugees on board the [Aquarius] to disembark safely and quickly," it said in a tweet. 

"Hundreds of people urgently need assistance, slowing down operations puts their well-being at risk."

In a later statement, the UNHCR urged the countries involved to allow the ship to dock now and deal with the "wider issues" later.

"There is an urgent humanitarian imperative here," said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean.

"People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly. Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between states should be looked at later."


The issue had also attracted the attentions of the EU, which has called on Italy and Malta to reach a "swift resolution" to allow the boat to dock.

While Germany has asked the countries to "meet their humanitarian responsibilities".

"I can say that we are concerned about the situation of the people on this ship, the Aquarius, and that the government calls on all parties to to fulfill their humanitarian responsibility," said German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

Italy's new populist government, formed of the far-right League party and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement have built support on a pledge to stop the influx of refugees via the Mediterranean into the country, and to put "Italians first".

The Mediterranean has long been a key route into Europe for refugees and migrants are using North African states, such as Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt as launch points for journeys.

In the year 2017, 171,635 migrants and refugees made the sea crossing into Europe and 3,116 people died or went missing trying to do so.

Earlier in June, at least 112 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of Tunisia while trying to make the journey north across the Mediterranean.

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