ROME — Italy’s new populist government, following through on its campaign promise to crack down on immigration, refused to let a rescue boat with more than 600 migrants dock on Sunday and threatened to do the same to another ship on Monday.
The action set off a day of diplomatic confrontation with the European Union and its Mediterranean neighbors, until Spain said Monday afternoon that it would break the deadlock and accept the ship, the Aquarius, which had been at sea under a sweltering sun since Saturday.
But the blocking of the ship made for the first real test of whether Matteo Salvini, the country’s powerful interior minister and the leader of the anti-immigrant League, would keep the hard-line campaign promises to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants and to prevent new arrivals from landing on Italian shores.
He did, and after Spain offered to take the migrants, he declared victory for his government, saying at a news conference at his party’s headquarters that raising his voice had clearly paid off.
“We scored a point in our favor, but it’s not the end of anything,” Mr. Salvini said, arguing that economic migrants, whom he called “an army of fake refugees,” had for too long exploited Italy’s lax rules and hospitality. Mr. Salvini added that his goal was to stop the flow of refugees and to cut spending on migrant care. “We’ll solve identical problems for other ships,” he said.
The recent events, and Mr. Salvini’s adoption of the Twitter hashtag #chiudiamoiporti, or “ We Will Close the Ports,” suggested that he intended to.
“Rescuing lives is a duty, transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,” Mr. Salvini wrote on Facebook on Monday morning. “Italy has stopped bowing its head and obeying.”
On Sunday, the Italian authorities ordered the Aquarius, a rescue vessel operated by European humanitarian groups and Doctors Without Borders, to stop 35 nautical miles off the southern coast of Italy.
The ship had 629 migrants aboard, hailing from 26 different counties in Africa, and included 123 minors, 11 small children, seven pregnant women. It also had 15 people with serious chemical burns and several patients with hypothermia, according to Doctors Without Borders. The migrants boarded the Aquarius from six overcrowded boats adrift in the central Mediterranean.
But the aid group said that Italy did not provide an alternate destination where it could safely dock, leading it to sail back and forth for hours.
Finally, Spain’s new Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, gave instructions on Monday to save the refugees Italy had rejected.
The Spanish government said in a statement, “It is our obligation to avoid a human catastrophe and offer a safe haven to these people, fulfilling that way the obligations of international law.” Spain is offering to welcome the refugees in the eastern port of Valencia.
European leaders, humanitarian groups, Italian mayors and newspapers decried the new Italian government’s hard line on Monday. (“Salvini Pushes back the Ship of the Desperate,” read the front page headline of La Stampa. “629 people Held Hostage by Salvini,” read the banner headline in La Repubblica.)
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees appealed on Monday to both Italy and Malta to allow the immediate disembarkation of people stranded on the Aquarius.
“There is an urgent humanitarian imperative here,” said Vincent Cochetel, the refugee agency’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean. “People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly. Broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between States should be looked at later.”
The chief spokesman for the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, said that “the priority of both the Italian and Maltese authorities should be ensuring these people receive the care they need.”
Some mayors from southern Italian cities excoriated the government for stranding the migrants and offered their ports to the ship. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, remarking that his city’s name meant “all port” in ancient Greek, said that the Sicilian capital would always welcome ships that saved lives in the Mediterranean.
But their gestures were merely symbolic as the new populist government has jurisdiction over all of Italy’s ports.
And there appeared to be full consensus within the government that this was the right course of action. Mr. Salvini’s coalition partners in the Five Star Movement supported his hard line. And Italy’s prime minister, chosen in part by Mr. Salvini for the job, gave his full backing.
Italy wanted Malta, which was only 27 nautical miles away, to take the migrants. But since 2013, Italy has officially coordinated rescue missions in the central Mediterranean, after a shipwreck left more than 350 migrants dead near the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
Since then, European countries have joined forces in a military operation led by Italy to prevent similar tragedies while patrolling in search of human traffickers. Over recent years, the mission has shrunk, but rescued migrants were usually brought to Italy. The consensus in the international community is that Malta, whose population is less than 1 percent of Italy’s, could not absorb the migrants as easily as Italy could.
“Italy is violating international law,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta wrote on Twitter on Sunday night as his government offered emergency medical evacuations, if necessary, but refused to allow the ship to dock on the island.
Mr. Salvini and the anti-establishment Five Star’s new transportation minister, Danilo Toninelli, issued a joint statement Sunday night urging the Maltese government to open its ports to the migrants, and to face its responsibilities “for the first time in a long time.”
The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, agreed.
“To premier Joseph Muscat, who I called personally tonight, I asked that he at least take care of the humanitarian aid of the people in difficulty on Aquarius,” Mr. Conte said Sunday night. “Muscat has not guaranteed any action. This is umpteenth unwillingness of Malta, and thus of Europe, to act. Italy is totally alone.”
He then called for a change in the European Union law requiring migrants applying for asylum to do so in the first country in the bloc where they arrived, and for their applications to be processed before they are allowed to go to other European nations.
Such relocations are slow and rare. As a result, Italy bears the brunt of a migration crisis that has drastically transformed its politics.
“We have taken in thousands a day for years, and Malta is not available to welcome even a few hundred,” said Luigi Di Maio, the political leader of the Five Star Movement and Mr. Salvini’s counterpart in the governing alliance. He said that Italy was awaiting a response from European leaders. “It’s about time to say enough.”
The Five Star Movement, which won nearly a third of votes in Italy in March, long maintained a vague line on polarizing issues like immigration. By being hard to pin down, they succeeded in attracting voters from both the left and the right. After the standoff on Monday though, it is now clear that they share the League’s hard line.
The previous government of the center-left Democratic Party also implored European leaders to help share the burden of the migration crisis. They struck deals with Libyan tribes, and possibly human traffickers, to reduce the flow of migrants. (Italy has recorded 13,706 sea arrivals so far in 2018, a significant decrease from recent years.) But they never turned ships away.
A former interior minister, Marco Minniti, told the daily La Repubblica on Monday: “Salvini’s is an electoral move. I’ve never thought of closing the ports, not even when 26 ships arrived with 13,500 migrants within 36 hours.”
Indeed, on Sunday, more than seven million Italians voted in local elections, with early results showing a strong showing for the League in several cities.
This is not the first time the League has closed ports to aid ships. In 2009, the interior minister at the time, Roberto Maroni, also from Mr. Salvini’s party, left a Turkish merchant boat at sea for days in an attempt to redirect the migrants aboard to Malta.
In 2003, Italy’s center-right ruling coalition left a German aid group at sea for three weeks. Italian authorities delivered food by helicopter, and eventually gave in and allowed the vessel to dock in Italy.
This time, at least, Mr. Salvini and his government seems to have caught the attention of Europe’s most powerful leaders.
“Italy needs common rules on asylum and we need a common border police,” Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said on German television Sunday night. “I will use all my influence for this purpose.”