Aquarius migrants finally land in Spain after odyssey

VALENCIA, Spain: The 630 migrants whose rescue sparked a major migration row in Europe began disembarking in Spain on Sunday after a turbulent week that saw Italy turn them away.
The first of three ships transporting the group, an Italian coast guard vessel called the Datillo, pulled into Valencia harbour just before 6:30 am (0430 GMT) with 274 migrants on board, according to the Red Cross.
The Aquarius itself, the rescue ship chartered by a French NGO which has been at the centre of the crisis, pulled into port some four hours later under a clear blue sky at the port in southeastern Spain.
As it neared port, those onboard had danced and sang, their excitement captured in footage released on Twitter by SOS Mediterranee which operates the vessel together with Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
The third boat, the Italian navy ship the Orione, arrived late on Sunday, regional authorities said.
After the first boat docked, medical staff wearing white overalls, gloves and masks went on board to carry out initial medical checks before the migrants disembarked in groups of 20.
The migrants, most of them from Africa, were welcomed by a team of more than 2,000 people, including 470 translators and 1,000 Red Cross volunteers who distributed basic items such as blankets, clothes and hygiene kits.
High waves and winds had forced the naval convoy to take a detour on its 1,500-kilometre voyage to Spain, ending a week-long odyssey in the Mediterranean.
At the port, a huge banner was hung up saying “Welcome home” in various languages including Arabic.
“Today is a historic day,” said Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, a well-known priest who heads the Messengers of Peace NGO which is helping migrants at the port. “It will be hard for Spaniards not to smile when they see these children disembark,” he said.
Among the passengers are 450 men and 80 women — at least seven of them pregnant — as well as 89 adolescents and 11 children under the age of 13, figures released by the Valencian authorities show.
They come from 26 countries, mainly from Africa but also Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, MSF said. Those with injuries — mainly scratches and burns — were taken to hospital along with the pregnant woman, local health officials said.
Red Cross Secretary-General Elhadj As Sy thanked Spain “for opening their arms at times when many reject and are not showing solidarity.”
“We call on all other countries to follow suit in helping those in need,” he said in Valencia.
The Aquarius rescued the migrants off Libya’s coast last weekend but Italy’s new populist government and Malta both refused to let it dock, accusing each other of failing to meet their humanitarian and EU commitments.
— AFP