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Spain Becomes Top EU Migrant Destination; Italy Blamed for Deaths at Sea


FILE - Migrants aboard the Open Arms aid boat, of Proactiva Open Arms Spanish NGO, react as the ship approaches the port of Barcelona, Spain, July 4, 2018.

Spain has overtaken Italy as the No. 1 destination for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to try to reach Europe.

The latest figures for the European Union's border agency Frontex show the number of migrants reaching Spain jumped 166 percent from a year ago, to nearly 6,400 in June. Nationals of Morocco, Guinea and Mali accounted for the highest number of arrivals in Spain.

Conversely, the number of migrants using the so-called central Mediterranean route to Italy and Malta was down about 3,000, a drop of 87 percent from June 2017.

Italy has rejected criticism of its hard-line policy on immigration, after protesters marched on the Interior Ministry accusing it of being responsible for the deaths of migrants at sea. Rome has banned nongovernmental organization charity boats from disembarking migrants in Italian ports.

FILE - Migrants stand on the deck of the Aquarius as the ship enters the port of Valencia, June 17, 2018. The migrants began disembarking in Spain after Italy turned the ship away.
FILE - Migrants stand on the deck of the Aquarius as the ship enters the port of Valencia, June 17, 2018. The migrants began disembarking in Spain after Italy turned the ship away.

The criticism follows the discovery this week by a Spanish rescue charity of a destroyed migrant boat floating in the Mediterranean off Libya. Amid the wreckage were the bodies of a woman and child, while another woman was rescued alive. NGOs accuse the Libyan coast guard and a merchant ship that was nearby of abandoning the migrants.

"This is the direct consequence of not allowing NGOs, which rescue lives in the Mediterranean, to work there," said Oscar Camps of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which discovered the wrecked boat Tuesday about 80 nautical miles off Libya.

Earlier this week, five other European nations — France, Spain, Germany, Malta and Portugal — agreed to share 450 migrants rescued by Italian government vessels, after Rome initially refused to take them all in. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini wrote on Twitter: "Firmness and coherence pay off."

WATCH: Spain Becomes Top EU Migrant Destination; Italy Accused of Causing Deaths at Sea

Spain Becomes Top EU Migrant Destination; Italy Accused of Causing Deaths at Sea
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"My objective is to save everyone. To aid everyone. To heal everyone. To feed everyone. But to avoid that everyone comes to Italy," he later told reporters.

The fall in migrant numbers in Italy has given the League party a political boost at home, says analyst Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform.

"The figures had already dropped very much under the previous government, due to a set of deals Italy had struck with Libya. Indeed, the arrivals had dropped very sharply. Now, of course, the policy of preventing NGO boats from docking has led to an even further decrease. But more than that, it's led to a very strong political win for the League, especially because other European countries have now been forced to take in some of the migrants arriving in Italy," Scazzieri told VOA.

FILE - Migrants intercepted aboard a dinghy off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea leave a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, southern Spain, July 7, 2018.
FILE - Migrants intercepted aboard a dinghy off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea leave a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, southern Spain, July 7, 2018.

The United Nations says one in seven migrants making the crossing has drowned since Italy introduced the ban on NGO boats. Italy's hard line has reduced numbers, but at a tragic cost, and the European Union is struggling to formulate a response, Scazzieri says.

"The ideas that are currently on the table [are] those of external processing of [asylum] applications, of strengthening the role of Frontex, and even of more internal burden sharing," he said. "And these debates will go ahead and, at the same time, the ambiguity on what Italy does, I think, will remain."

Meanwhile, Spain is unlikely to see the huge numbers of migrants that made the crossing from Libya to Italy in recent years.

"Because the departure point on the African side would be Morocco, which is actually unlike Libya, not a near-failed state," according to Scazzieri.

Overall, the total number of so-called irregular migrant crossings into the European Union in the first half of 2018 was more than 60,000, a fall of almost half from a year ago.

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