Charity group protests as Italy plans migrant voyage to Spain

Refugees aboard the Aquarius

They were taken on board its ship Aquarius, which is now between Malta and Sicily.

However, French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the decision to block the Aquarius, saying that under worldwide law Italy should have taken the migrants in.

The migrants were picked up off the Libyan coast at the weekend and were packed onto the Aquarius which is operated by the charities SOS Mediterranee and Medecins san Frontieres.

Europe should recognize that Italy needs greater support to ensure a humane approach to migrants and to protect refugees, but also be willing to insist that Italy's government respect human rights.

"The NGOs have said the time to get to Valencia would be too long given the humanitarian situation on board".

"The statements concerning (the humanitarian ship) Aquarius that come from France are surprising".

The EU and the bloc's biggest member state Germany made similar pleas.

The dramatic move to block the arrival of the 629 migrants - some of whom had been rescued by the Italian Coast Guard and handed over to the Aquarius - comes as arrivals in Italy are at a five-year low: 14,441 since the beginning of the year, an 84 percent decline over 2017.

Italy's refusal to take in the migrants is the first sign of the new government's hardened stance on immigration.

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"We will not turn Italy into a huge refugee camp", he wrote. "My goal is to guarantee a peaceful life for these children in Africa and for our children in Italy", Salvini tweeted Sunday using the hashtag "We are shutting the ports". "It is our obligation to avoid a human catastrophe and offer a safe haven to these people, fulfilling that way the obligations of worldwide law", his government said in a statement.

In a statement late Sunday after speaking with his Italian counterpart, Mr Muscat refused to let the ship dock in a Maltese port, but said Malta would conduct emergency medical evacuations if necessary.

Anelise praised the teams of staff on the vessel: "The teams here are very calm, they say the situation is under control and we continue heading north towards the east part of Malta and towards Italy".

Police questioned the boat's captain for more than four hours, according to Sea-Watch - the NGO that operates the vessel - and journalists aboard were asked to hand over video footage of the June 5 rescue operation. It added that the Aquarius "is still waiting for definitive instructions regarding the port of safety". The passengers were rescued in seven separate operations.

Italy had argued that Malta, a tiny island nation that also is an European Union member, was the safest, closest port to the ship. The ship has 629 migrants including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and six pregnant women.

Several migrants had water in their lungs, suffered hypothermia or burns from a mix of boat fuel and seawater while in their traffickers' boats.

Among those on board are 400 migrants rescued by the Italian navy and merchant vessels before being transferred to the Aquarius.

United Nations agencies are warning of major tragedies if countries refuse to accept refugees and migrants rescued at sea. The mayor of Taranto, Rinaldo Melucci said the southern port city was "ready to embrace every life in danger".

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