Rescue ships dock in Spain as migrant debate simmers across Europe

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Ships in the Aquarius aid convoy docked on Sunday at the Spanish port of Valencia.

Their arrival ended a week-long ordeal for hundreds of people who were rescued from the Mediterranean only to become the latest pawns in Europe’s battle over immigration.

The Italian coastguard vessel Dattilo was the first of the three boats bearing the 630 migrants to touch land just before 7am on Sunday.

The rescue ship Aquarius came in at 11am with another 106 migrants. Another Italian navy ship, the Orione, came in shortly after 1pm.

The Aquarius, operated by the aid groups SOS Mediterranee Sea and Doctors Without Borders, was stuck 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 930-mile journey across the Mediterranean from Sicily to Valencia took nearly a week.

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The migrants were met by emergency workers, health officials, Red Cross volunteers and psychologists at the city’s marina (Alberto Saiz/AP)

“I have mixed feelings,” he told The Associated Press on Sunday as the first boat arrived.

“I am happy that the journey (for the Aquarius migrants) is over – a journey that was too long – and I am worried for the situation in the Mediterranean and the closing of European ports.”

The migrants were met by emergency workers, health officials, Red Cross volunteers and psychologists at the city’s marina.

Each was assigned to a translator and authorities worked to determine their identities before they were sent to welcome centres.

The first migrant was a 29-year-old man from South Sudan.

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

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Spanish authorities say they will examine the migrants case by case to see who may qualify for asylum (Alberto Saiz/AP)

Spanish authorities say they will examine the migrants case by case to see who may qualify for asylum.

Spanish national police official Bernardo Alonso said that, due to their ordeal, the migrants from the Aquarius have been granted a special authorisation to remain in the country for 45 days before they must begin resolving their legal situation.

“They will be dealt with according to our laws, without exception,” Spain’s minister of public works, Jose Luis Abalos, said Saturday.

“Spain will act with sensitivity and at the same time within the law, and with a message to Europe that it doesn’t have an immigration policy up to the challenge at hand.”

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

After Spain invited the Aquarius to land, Italy sent the Dattilo and Orione to help transport the migrants.

Migrants arrive in Valencia
Migrants on board the Orione were the last to arrive (Alberto Saiz/AP)

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.

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