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Aquarius arrives in Spain, ending politically charged migrant odyssey

© Jose Jordan, AFP | The humanitarian ship the Aquarius arrived in Valencia on Sunday, June 17, with more than a hundred migrants on board.

Ships in the Aquarius aid convoy docked Sunday at the Spanish port of Valencia, ending an ordeal for hundreds of migrants who were rescued from the Mediterranean only to become the latest pawn in Europe's battle over immigration.

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The Italian coast guard vessel Dattilo was the first of the three boats bearing the 630 migrants to arrive in the eastern Spanish port city of Valencia after dawn on Sunday. The 270 migrants on board soon began to disembark after medical staff had made a preliminary inspection.

“The first ship by the Italian coast guard, the Datillo, has just docked right behind me,” explained FRANCE 24’s Sarah Morris, reporting from the Valencia port shortly after dawn. “Members of the health department are already on board, carrying out the first process of identifying those passengers. There’s about 270 of them, some of them in need of urgent medical attention…We know that between seven to nine people on board those ships may be pregnant, there are about a hundred under-18-year-olds. It’s going to be a very long process.”

The rescue ship Aquarius came in at 11 am local time with another 106 migrants. Another Italian navy ship, the Orione, arrived later Sunday.

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 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) journey across the Mediterranean from Sicily to Valencia took nearly a week.

European politicians score points with migrants at sea

The ship's predicament gave Italy's new government the chance to assert its anti-migrant credentials, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, in office for just over a week, took the opportunity to underline a more liberal stance.

But the plight of the Aquarius has highlighted the EU’s failure to agree on how to manage huge numbers of people fleeing poverty and conflict.

David Noguera, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Spain, said he was glad that Spain allowed these migrants in but he's worried that more European nations will close their ports to those rescued at sea in the future.

"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."

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Migrant arrivals increasing in Spain

Anti-migrant feeling has surged in Italy, where more than 600,000 people have arrived on its shores over the past five years, helping to propel the nationalist League into a coalition government.

Far fewer come to Spain, but the numbers are rising fast.

Most Spaniards support the idea of welcoming and helping to integrate refugees, pollsters say, allowing Sanchez, a socialist, to offer migrant-friendly policies to voters who feel previous governments did not do enough.

France, which chided Italy for turning away the Aquarius, has offered to take in any passengers who qualify for asylum and want to go there.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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