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18th Jun 2018

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Basque region offers to host rescued Aquarius migrants

  • The migrants were rescued by the SOS Mediterranee NGO before being put on the Aquarius ship, which will dock in Valencia, Spain (Photo: SOS Mediterranee)

The Basque government in northern Spain has offered to host some of the 600 migrants rescued by the Aquarius humanitarian ship.

The boat was left in a legal impasse after picking up the migrants in waters off Libya. It had been refused permission to dock in either Italy or Malta - forcing the European Commission earlier Monday to call on parties to recognise the "humanitarian imperative" of helping those aboard.

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Inigo Ukrullu, the president of the Basque Government, told EUobserver in Bilbao on Monday (11 June) the move to take in the rescued refugees is a demonstration of the region's commitment to solidarity.

"Solidarity is one the main characteristics we have here in this country [Basque] and we have shown our commitment to receive the refugees coming from the sea," he said.

Ukrullu said the Basque government had informed Madrid of the decision, noting that they will also accept another 200 people from Syria.

"We want to say to the Spanish government we have the capacity and the possibility to receive the refugees that will be assigned to the Basque country," he said.

Bilbao's mayor Juan Mari Aburto told this website that it is not yet clear if the refugees will end up in his city or elsewhere in the region.

"It is possible to Bilbao, for the moment we don't know," he said.

Ukrullu had made the announcement only moments earlier at the 2018 CEMR Conference, which brings together mayors and regional representative from around Europe.

In his opening speech Ukrullu said accepting the refugees was needed to underline "the foundational values of the European project such as diversity, equality and inclusion."

The 600-plus migrants rescued off the Libyan coast were left stranded on the MS Aquarius after Italy refused permission to dock given orders from Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party.

Salvini, who is now Italy's interior minister, ordered the blockade as part of his wider policy to rid the country of unwanted migrants.

"Saving lives is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn't," he said, after closing off all Italian ports to Aquarius.

He then told Malta to take the rescues, which they refused.

Spain's prime minister Pedro Sanchez has since said the Aquarius could dock in Valencia.

"It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe harbour to these people in accordance with international law," his office, said in a statement, also on Monday.

In addition to the Basque region, other Spanish regions have offered to take some of the migrants. Estremadura, Aragon and the Baleares islands said they could help, while Catalonia offered to take all 629. The city of Madrid said it was ready to welcome around 100 .

The Aquarius is some 1,400km from Valencia, has 629 migrants onboard, including some 100 children.

Meanwhile in Bilbao, Merce Puig, a spokesperson from Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak, an NGO working with refugees and migrants in the city, told EUobserver that the government had erected four-metre tall walls around the city's port to deter other people from attempting to go to the UK.

She said migrants and refugees started appearing at the port in the hopes of jumping onto a UK bound ferry after France had closed the camps in and around Calais.

"At first there were different nationalities, there were Syrians, Kurdistans, Albanians. Right now most of them are Albanians," she said.

As for Ukrullu's announcement on Monday, she said it is better than nothing.

"If they take 10 percent from that trip [the Aquarius], perfect. It is better to take it than not but it is not the only step they must do - because people of the port, the Basque government had removed all the tents and left them in the streets," she said.

This article was updated twice on 12 June to take into account the propositions from other Spanish regions to take migrants, and other developments in Bilbao.

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