The European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA) has expressed concerns over Italy’s migrants policy after the country refused to allow a humanitarian ship to enter its ports and disembark rescued migrants.

Earlier this week, the Aquarius vessel was denied entrance to Italian and Maltese ports, despite carrying over 600 migrants. Jointly operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Beyond Borders, Aquarius rescued migrants from the Mediterranean Sea on 9 June and will now seek shelter in the Spanish city of Valencia.

The ECSA said its fears about Italy’s approach to the migrant crisis have been shared by several key players in the maritime industry, who are concerned about the consequences of this move.

“We realise that Mediterranean states like Italy, Spain and Malta have been under huge pressure in the past years receiving so many migrants and the burden of incoming migrants should be better shared,” said ECSA secretary general Martin Dorsman.

“However, we find it unacceptable that ships carrying migrants are turned away from ports. Also merchant ships can be called upon for assisting with the rescue of migrants. In accordance with international conventions, the captain has a legal obligation to help people in distress at sea, and will of course honour these commitments when needed. However, commercial ships are not equipped neither are the crews trained to undertake large-scale rescues or keep migrants on board for long time.”

Dorsman explained that the safety and wellbeing of migrants and seafarers can only be guaranteed if they are disembarked as soon as possible. He added: “The shipping industry is directly affected by migrants at sea. Whereas the number of migrants rescued from the sea has gone down from the peak year of 2015, merchant vessels are still often involved in the Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in central, western and eastern Mediterranean.”

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The ship is expected to reach the port of Valencia by Saturday night, though concerns for the welfare of the migrants on board remain high.