Malta has accused Italy of violating international norms by instructing a migrant rescue ship with 629 people aboard to stay at sea while a diplomatic standoff plays out over where it can dock.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Italy’s refusal to allow the Aquarius ship to dock at an Italian port risked “creating a dangerous situation for all those involved”.
In a statement late Sunday after speaking with his Italian counterpart, Mr Muscat refused to let the ship dock in a Maltese port, but said Malta would conduct emergency medical evacuations if necessary.
The standoff marked the first display of Italy’s get-tough immigration policy under the right-wing League.
Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, head of the League party, said: “Enough! Saving lives is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn’t.”
He tweeted: #Chiudiamoiporti. “We’re closing the ports.”
The ship said it had been ordered on Sunday night by Italy’s coast guard to remain 35 miles off Italy and 27 miles from Malta.
The migrants had been rescued during a series of operations on Saturday by Italian maritime ships, cargo vessels and the Aquarius itself. All passengers were offloaded to the Aquarius to be taken to land.
Doctors Without Borders, which has staff aboard the Aquarius, tweeted a video of some of the women aboard the ship praying on Monday morning, and said they were unaware of the diplomatic drama being waged on land over their fate.
The group said it “urgently requests a swift resolution and a designated port of safety”.