Hundreds of migrants turned away by Italy arrive in Spain

By Flora Charner, Vera Cataño and Susannah Cullinane, CNN

(CNN) — After more than a week at sea, hundreds of migrants turned away by Italy danced and sang as their ships arrived in the Spanish port of Valencia on Sunday.

The 630 migrants had been rescued by the Aquarius last weekend off the coast of Libya, but Italy and Malta refused to let their ship into port.

The ship is operated by aid agencies Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, and had at least 100 minors and seven pregnant women aboard.

The ship was held for two days between Malta and the Italian island of Sicily after the latter nation’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, refused to allow it to dock.

After Spain offered to take them in, the ship started an 800-mile journey to Valencia along with two Italian ships sent to ease the overcrowding.

The first group of 274 migrants arrived at the Spanish port Sunday morning aboard the Italian Coast Guard ship Dattilo. The Aquarius arrived in port next, with the third vessel, the Orione, arriving at lunchtime.

The Spanish Red Cross said that it had attended to 28 men and one pregnant woman as well as three unaccompanied minors from the Dattilo. Five people also required wheelchairs, the charity said on Twitter, and it had been distributing first aid kits with food and water.

More than 2,300 people are meeting the ships, including 400 translators, 1,000 Red Cross volunteers and 600 police officers, local authorities said.

France makes settlement offer

SOS Mediterranee posted footage on Twitter of migrants dancing and singing as they viewed the Spanish coast.

“Relief & happiness on board the #Aquarius as we see Spanish shores. … The end of a long and exhausting odyssey is close,” it said.

Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, tweeted that migrants on board the Aquarius had been “calm and pleased” to hear they would be arriving in Spain on Sunday morning.

In a separate tweet, MSF said the ship would be obliged to conduct search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean “for as long as European governments fail to fulfill their responsibilities.”

Some of the rescued migrants from the Aquarius will be allowed to settle in France, Spain’s deputy prime minister said Saturday.

France made the offer via its ambassador to Spain, Deputy PM Carmen Calvo said in a statement. In a telegram, Spain’s President, Pedro Sanchez, thanked French President Emmanuel Macron for his offer.

Macron had been critical of Italy’s refusal to accept the Aquarius migrants but later worked to smooth things over with Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte.

Italy’s warning

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s hardline interior minister and the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, was instrumental in blocking the Aquarius from docking this week in his country.

In a live Facebook post Sunday, Salvini was defiant.

“At this moment, the boat is arriving in Spain with 629 presumed refugees and so I thank the Spanish government. I hope they take in the other 66,629 refugees. We will not be offended if the French follow the Spanish, the Portugese and Maltese, we will be the happiest people on earth,” he said.

On Saturday, he had warned other ships carrying migrants as part of a humanitarian mission not to try to dock in Italy.

“While the Aquarius ship goes toward Spain, 2 other NGO ships with Dutch flags have arrived near the Libyan coast,” Salvini tweeted Saturday.

“We know that Italy does not want to be complicit in the business of clandestine immigration, and they will have to look for other ports to go to,” he said, without providing details about the Dutch-flagged ships.

Salvini has previously promised to expel half a million illegal immigrants from Italy. He’s also shared anti-immigrant memes on social media.