GENEVA - U.N. agencies are warning of major tragedies if countries refuse to accept refugees and migrants rescued at sea. This warning comes after Italy and Malta refused permission for the boat Aquarius to dock after it had rescued 629 migrants Sunday off the coast of Libya.
Spain offered its Port of Valencia as a safe harbor for the migrants, but it will take several days before the Aquarius reaches port.
The U.N. refugee agency rejects the argument that boats run by private organizations should stop making such rescues, as they are simply providing an incentive for migrants to make perilous overseas journeys.
UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic says rescue at sea is a long tradition, upheld by International Maritime Conventions. He tells VOA there is no merit to the suggestion that people in distress will be dissuaded from crossing the sea in flimsy boats if they know rescue is not a possibility.
He notes there were no search-and-rescue operations in the Aegean in 2014 when many boats were arriving in Greece from Syria at the height of the Middle East crisis and from West Africa because of the Boko Haram insurgency.
"From the empirical evidence, the boats had been arriving whether there were or were not rescue operations in the Mediterranean or in Eastern Mediterranean or Central Mediterranean," Mahecic said. "Even at the time when some of the search-and-rescue operations were suspended, the boats were still leaving the shores of Africa."
The International Organization for Migration has urged the European Union to revise the so-called Dublin regulations, which hold the state through which an asylum-seeker first enters the EU responsible for that person.
The IOM and other humanitarian organizations argue it is not fair that a country such as Italy, which tends to be the first port of call, be responsible for the thousands of migrants that land on its shores. They say other EU countries should share this burden.