A charity rescue vessel carrying 311 mainly African migrants plucked off Libya docked in Spain Friday, ending a traumatic journey which saw them spending Christmas at sea and several European nations denying the ship entry.
The vessel docked in the port of Crinavis near the southern city of Algeciras to applause and Proactiva Open Arms, the Spanish charity which runs the Open Arms vessel carrying them, feted the arrival with a “Mission acccomplished” tweet.
“These are people, both children and adults, who have had really horrible experiences in both their countries of origin and during their journey,” Vicente Raimundo, the director of intervention in Spain for the NGO Save The Children.
He said some of the 139 children aboard came “from countries at war such as Somalia and Syria.”
The migrants started disembarking at around 10:30 am (0930 GMT), with children and women getting off first. They were met by Red Cross officials who gave them clothes and food and conducted medical tests if required.
Police will identify the migrants before moving them to shelters.
The migrants were rescued on December 21 from three vessels but were denied entry by Italy and Malta. Libya, France and Tunisia did not respond to Proactiva Open Arms’ requests for permission to dock, Madrid said.
On Saturday, a newborn baby and his mother were helicoptered from the boat to Malta, while a 14-year-old suffering from a serious skin infection was taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Photos and videos posted by the charity showed the rest of the rescued migrants marking Christmas at sea listening to music and singing. Some children wore red Santa hats as they huddled together on the small rescue ship.
– Spain new entry point –
Proactiva Open Arms operates in the sea between Libya and southern Europe, coming to the aid of migrants who get into difficulties during the crossing from northern Africa.
This was the first time since August that Spain has allowed a charity rescue ship to dock and unload migrants in the country.
The Open Arms resumed its patrols of the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast in late November, along with two other boats run by migrant aid groups.
In August it had suspended its missions, accusing governments, and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini by name, of “criminalising” migrant rescue charities.
Salvini has denied the groups access to Italy’s ports, accusing them of acting as a “taxi service” for migrants. Malta too has been increasingly unwilling to host rescue vessels.
“Your rhetoric and your message will, like everything in this life, end,” Proactiva Open Arms’ founder Camps told Salvini on Twitter earlier.
“But you should know that in a few decades your descendants will be ashamed of what you do and say.”
More than 1,300 migrants have perished trying to reach Italy or Malta since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
That makes this stretch of the Mediterranean the most deadly for migrants attempting the crossing to Europe.
Spain meanwhile has become Europe’s main entry point for migrants this year, overtaking Greece and Italy.
More 56,000 migrants have arrived in Spain by sea this year, and 769 have died trying, according to the IOM.