Aquarius migrants express their joy at arriving in Spain

Matteo Salvini

AFP GETTY IMAGESMatteo Salvini said he was making good on his anti-migrant election pledges by turning the boat away

Madrid said Saturday it had accepted an offer from France to take in migrants from the Aquarius rescue ship, now en route to Spain with more than 600 people on board.

The Aquarius rescue ship arrives to port carrying some 106 migrants in Valencia, Spain June 17, 2018.

VALENCIA, Spain Ships in the Aquarius aid convoy docked today at the Spanish port of Valencia, ending a weeklong ordeal for hundreds of people who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea only to become pawns in Europe's fight over immigration.

Far-right wing protesters hold Spanish flags and a banner reading "We don't want refugees" as they demonstrate against the arrival of migrants in the Aquarius. Italy refused the Aquarius and its 600 passengers entry then Spain offered to take it.

The migrants aboard the Aquarius spent 20 hours in overcrowded rubber dinghies before being rescued.

Vessels chartered by an assortment of European NGOs have plied the waters off Libya for three years, rescuing migrants from leaking boats and transporting them to Sicily.

Among the passengers are 450 men and 80 women - at least seven of them pregnant - as well as 89 adolescents and 11 children under the age of 13, figures released by the Valencian authorities show.

The Aquarius is now en route to Valencia, where it is expected to arrive on Sunday.

Italy dispatched two ships Tuesday to help take 629 migrants stuck off its shores on the days-long voyage to Spain, after the new populist government refused them safe port in a dramatic bid to force Europe to share the burden of unrelenting arrivals.

The refusal by Italy and Malta to allow the Aquarius to enter their ports has reignited a continentwide battle over how to handle immigration.

The migrants, mainly from Africa, will be welcomed by a team of more than 2,000 people, including 1,000 Red Cross volunteers and 470 translators.

The migrants made their way slowly down the gangplank of the Italian coast guard ship Datillo in the port of Valencia early on Sunday, more than a week after they were rescued in several operations off the coast of Libya. Spain ended up offering the ship safe harbour.

The rally, it said, "will be a cry of truth and justice for Soumayla Sacko and for all migrant and Italian workers who are exploited in our country". They have also been trained to identify possible victims of human trafficking and those in need of special protection.

The migrants could not hide their relief at seeing Valencia and shouts and singing erupted on board when they could see the Spanish city on the horizon, Spanish journalist Gabriela Sanchez tweeted.

The migrants came 26 countries.

But the plight of the Aquarius, run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Franco-German charity SOS Mediterranee, highlighted the European Union's struggle to manage an influx of people fleeing poverty and conflict.

France - which had angered Rome by branding it irresponsible over the vessel rejection - offered on Thursday to welcome those migrants who "meet the criteria for asylum". Through the first five months of 2018, some 35,455 migrants reached European shores.

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