The MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres, has been told by Italian authorities to stand by in its current position, 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta. Malta refused, and when Italy instructed the ship to stay at sea, Malta accused Italy of violating global norms.
As the rhetoric intensified, the Aquarius remained on standby in the Mediterranean Sea with its 629 passengers, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.
The migrants had been rescued during a series of operations Saturday by Italian maritime ships, cargo vessels and the Aquarius itself.
Italy's firebrand interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who leads the anti-immigrant League party in the governing coalition, has long railed against what he depicts as Europe's failure to show solidarity with Italy during the migrant crisis in recent years.
Matteo Salvini, in a joint statement with Danilo Toninelli, the minister in charge of the Italian coastguard, insisted that Malta "cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise global conventions on the protection of human life". "The Mediterranean is the sea of all the countries that face it, and it (Malta) can't imagine that Italy will continue to face this giant phenomenon in solitude".More news: Kim Kardashian West shares glimpse at Kanye’s birthday bash
Malta has refused to take in the Aquarius. The Rome-based rescue coordination centre gave the instructions.
In a statement late on Sunday, the government said Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, and the Prime Minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte, had a telephone conversation on the developing situation of the vessel Acquarius.
Muscat said Malta will offer to evacuate people who require urgent medical help, without prejudice to its stand in refusing entry to the ship.
Muscat said he told Conte "that Malta is acting in full conformity with its global obligations".
Talking to the paper, the legal expert said: "The decision to close the ports is more than legitimate".More news: Trudeau 'stabbed us in back' on trade, says Trump chief economic adviser
More than 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years. Right-wing politicians have accused charity boats operating off the coast of Libya of operating as "taxis" for migrants.
On Friday, he suggested North Atlantic Treaty Organisation intervene to protect Italy, saying the country is "under attack from the south".
Tweeting on Sunday, Salvini said: "Starting today, Italy, too, begins to say NO to the trafficking of human beings, NO to the business of clandestine immigration".
"My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy", Mr Salvini said, using a Twitter hashtag which translates to, "We are shutting the ports".
Matteo Salvini sent a letter to the Maltese authorities saying he would "be forced to close Italy's ports" if the 629 migrants saved by the French charity SOS Mediterranee weren't allowed to land at Malta's capital Valletta.More news: E3 2018: EA Reveals Origin Access Premier And New Streaming Service
The aid group said in a statement it had taken "good note" of Salvini's stance, as reported earlier by Italian media.