A Spanish charity rescue boat sought safe port after Italy rejected a request to disembark 124 people saved from migrant rafts in the Mediterranean, the organisation said.
Non-governmental organisation (NGO) rescue boats have largely disappeared from the Mediterranean over the last year as governments tighten controls. Charity ships that rescued migrants faced long stand-offs in attempts to disembark those aboard.
Barcelona-based NGO Open Arms rescued 55 people from a sinking raft, among them two babies, and a further 69 people from another boat last week, the organisation said on Twitter.
Two pregnant women were among those rescued, Open Arms founder Oscar Camps said on Twitter, while many showed signs of violence suffered in Libya before the sea journey.
“As was expected, we received word from the Italian government. A 50,000 euro ($55,500) fine and seizure of the Open Arms hangs over us if we enter Italian waters, this in addition to threats from the Spanish government,” Open Arms wrote on Twitter.
The boat was heading north in search of safe port, the organisation added.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League party, is pushing to increase fines for rescue boats and said any entering Italian waters will be seized.
“I would tell them the government of Spain hopes they will act in accordance with international agreements and international law,” Isabel Celaa, spokeswoman for the caretaker Socialist government, told reporters.
The Open Arms was blocked from operating in the Mediterranean earlier this year after Spanish maritime authorities said the NGO violated international agreements that rescued migrants should be taken to the closest available port.
Spain replaced Italy earlier this year as Europe’s major migrant destination as the western Mediterranean route from Morocco to the Iberian Peninsula became the most active in the region.
While numbers of arrivals to the continent overall fell consistently in recent years, immigration remains divisive in the European Union, with one poll finding it a voters’ key concern ahead of EU elections in May.