VALENCIA, Spain (Reuters) - A migrant rescue boat turned away by Italy and Malta arrived at the Spanish port of Valencia on Sunday, ending a gruelling voyage which has made it a symbol of Europe’s failure to agree on immigration.
Spain swooped to help 629 mainly sub-Saharan Africans on board the Aquarius last week after Italy’s new government, asserting its anti-immigrant credentials, refused to let it dock. Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who took office two weeks ago, took the opportunity to show a more liberal stance.
But the plight of the Aquarius, run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) with Franco-German charity SOS Mediterranee, highlighted the European Union’s failure to agree on how to manage the huge influx of people fleeing poverty and conflict.
In Valencia, officials in white protective suits and masks greeted the migrants as they debarked and police started identifying them and processing their information.
The Aquarius arrived carrying 106 people rescued from unstable boats near Libya. The others had been transferred to an Italian coast guard vessel and a ship belonging to the Italian navy to make the journey safer.
The coast guard boat was the first to arrive, docking in the eastern port with 274 on board just after dawn.
Shouts and singing erupted on the ship as the migrants on board saw Valencia on the horizon, Spanish journalist Gabriela Sanchez tweeted from another boat travelling alongside it.
A staff of 2,320, including volunteers, translators and health officials, were waiting on shore. Red Cross Secretary General Elhadj As Sy was also in Valencia for the arrival.
“This sad odyssey of the people on the Aquarius is another reminder that all people, regardless of their nationality or immigration status, should have access to basic assistance and protection,” Sy said in a statement.
“No human being is ‘illegal’, and people who need help should receive help,” added Sy.
Doctors Without Borders tweeted a photo of one of its team telling the people on board what they could expect.
“People are calm and pleased to be arriving in Spain,” the group said.
All seven pregnant women on board the ships will be immediately taken for check-ups, and all the arrivals, including 123 minors, will receive psychological help.
Valencian local government officials said none of the people who arrived on the first boat showed signs of serious illness, but many had suffered from crowded conditions and high temperatures in recent days.
Anti-migrant feeling has surged in Italy, where more than 600,000 people have arrived by sea over the past five years, helping to propel the nationalist League into a coalition government.
Far fewer have come to Spain, but the numbers are rising fast. Spain’s coast guard rescued almost 1,000 people on Friday and Saturday. A search is underway off the coast of Almeria after four sub-Saharan men rescued by helicopter said their dinghy had been carrying a total 47 people when it sank.
Most Spaniards support the idea of welcoming and helping to integrate refugees, pollsters say. That allowed Sanchez, a socialist, to offer migrant-friendly policies to voters who felt previous governments did not do enough.
France, which chided Italy for turning away the Aquarius, has offered to take in any passengers who qualify for asylum and want to go there.
An Italian naval vessel is due to bring the remaining migrants into port later in the morning.
Writing by Isla Binni; Editing by Larry King and Raissa Kasolowsky