Spain Offers to End Standoff Between Italy and Malta Over Migrant Boat



Spain offered to take in a boat carrying hundreds of migrants stranded in the Mediterranean after Malta and Italy refused, in an early sign that the new government in Rome is backing up its tough promises of an immigration crackdown.

Madrid’s offer potentially brings an end to concerns over the fate of the boat, which has been drifting since Sunday evening carrying 629 passengers rescued off the coast of Libya. Still, any journey to Spain’s coast would be arduous and it remains unclear how quickly the boat could reach it.

Spain’s intervention could hand a victory to Italy’s government, which is pushing to share the burden of seaborne migration from Africa more evenly among its European partners.

“Evidently raising one’s voice, something Italy had not done for years, pays off,” said Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

The standoff between Italy and Malta began after Italy denied permission to dock to the boat managed by the SOS Mediterranee aid group. The Italian government urged Malta to take the migrants, but the small nation declined, arguing it has no obligation to receive them.

There are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women on the boat, according to the aid group.

Italy’s decision represented the first action by the government to affirm a new course in its migration policy, which aims to stem the flow of undocumented African and Middle Eastern migrants.

The government, supported by the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement and the hard-right League, has pledged to halt what they describe as “the business of migration” and deport half a million migrants now on Italian soil. The coalition also promised to push the rest of Europe to take in rescued migrants.

Spain’s new prime minister seized on the crisis to show a more welcoming stance toward immigrants than his conservative predecessor.

“It’s our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe,” Pedro Sánchez, who was sworn in as prime minister earlier this month, said in a statement. Mr. Sánchez said the boat could dock in the Spanish port city of Valencia.

The boat was still waiting for instructions from authorities and on standby in international waters, SOS Mediterranee said.

But both the Italian and Maltese governments thanked Spain for stepping in and offering to take the boat.

“We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again,” said Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister, on Twitter. “This is a European issue.”

Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte praised Spain’s gesture. “It’s an important turning point: From today Italy isn’t alone anymore,” he said

Some analysts in Spain cautioned that Mr. Sánchez’s decision could trigger the arrival on Spanish shores of more boats. Hundreds of migrants have arrived in Spain in recent months, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in dinghies.

Italy has seen 750,000 seaborne migrants arrive on it shores since 2011, a crisis that has generated anger among Italians, some of whom accuse Rome’s European partners of abandoning it.

It is unclear whose duty it is to take the migrants. According to rules in place from 2013 to February of this year, all migrants rescued in the Mediterranean were brought to Italy.

But the European Union border agency Frontex has since launched a new rescue operation in the central Mediterranean. Rules for that operation leave the decision to the country coordinating the rescues as to where migrants will be disembarked, a task that has typically fallen to Italy. Frontex said that the rescue was outside of the area regulated by the new regime.

“We are reviewing all rules to be able to manage critical situations like this one better,” said Italy’s Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli.

Write to Giovanni Legorano at giovanni.legorano@wsj.com and Jeannette Neumann at jeannette.neumann@wsj.com



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