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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Boat migrants rocked by EU political storm start to arrive in Spain

Ordeal ends after more than a week at sea for more than 600 people

Migrants disembark from the Italian navy boat the Dattilo at the port of Valencia on June 17, 2018. Pau Barrena / AFP
Migrants disembark from the Italian navy boat the Dattilo at the port of Valencia on June 17, 2018. Pau Barrena / AFP

The migrant rescue ship Aquarius arrived in the Spanish port of Valencia on Sunday after nine days at sea as European nations squabbled over the fate of 629 people it had pulled from the Mediterranean.

Spain intervened to help the group of mainly sub-Saharan Africans last week, offering the Aquarius a berth 700 nautical miles away after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.

The charity-run ship was carrying 106 migrants when it docked, with the rest if its passengers divided en route between two boats from Italy's coast guard and navy to ensure their safety.

The Italian coast guard vessel Dattilo was the first to reach Valencia on Sunday, arriving just before 7am with 270 migrants, while the navy ship Orione was a few hours behind the Aquarius, which docked at 11am.

The 629 migrants include 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and as many as seven pregnant women.

The migrants were allowed to disembark after a preliminary medical inspection, with a staff of 2,320 people, including volunteers, translators and health officials, at the port to receive them.

Valencia emergency official Jorge Suarez said some of the migrants were in a state of shock.

"They are very shaken," he said. "Put yourself in their position, you get off a ship and the first people who greet you are wearing masks."

Spanish authorities say they will examine the migrants case-by-case to see who may qualify for asylum. France, which refused to allow the migrants to land on its shores, has said it will take in any found to be eligible for asylum.

Migrants disembark from the Italian navy boat the Dattilo at the port of Valencia on June 17, 2018. Jose Jordan / AFP
Migrants disembark from the Italian navy boat the Dattilo at the port of Valencia on June 17, 2018. Jose Jordan / AFP

The Aquarius, operated by the aid groups SOS Mediterranee Sea and Medecins Sans Frontieres, was off the coast of Sicily on June 9 when Italy refused it permission to dock and demanded that Malta do so. Malta also refused.

After days of bickering and food and water running low on the rescue ship, Spain stepped in and offered to grant the rescue boat entry. The journey across the Mediterranean from Sicily to Valencia took nearly a week.

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The refusal by Italy and Malta to allow the Aquarius to dock reignited a battle in Europe over how to handle immigration.

Under the EU's asylum laws — currently the subject of a major political dispute and under revision — migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they first enter Europe. In practice, the policy has placed a heavy burden on Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers have arrived in recent years.

Spain's new Socialist government has taken up the cause of the migrants to demonstrate its commitment to protecting human rights.

But overall, the European Union's 28 members have not agreed in the least how to handle the influx of refugees and migrants to Europe. The issue has put strong domestic pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, created a spat between France and Italy, and prompted eastern nations like Hungary and Poland to refuse to take in any migrants.

Immigration will be a top issue at the EU leaders' June 28-29 summit and a new populist government from Italy — one whose interior minister has vowed to deport tens of thousands of migrants as soon as he can — will make any compromises on migration policy even more difficult.

The warmer weather has caused a spike in desperate migrants taking off from North Africa for Europe. Spain's maritime rescue service pulled 986 people from 69 small smuggling boats near the Strait of Gibraltar between Friday and Saturday, and also recovered four bodies.

At least 792 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the United Nations. Through the first five months of 2018, some 35,455 migrants reached European shores, with 11,792 of them arriving in Spain