The British Government has distanced itself from calls for the UK to take in 141 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean by a Gibraltar-registered ship.
The Foreign Office said it was “well-established” that those stranded aboard the Aquarius should disembark “at a nearby safe port”, after the Italian government called for Britain to take them in.
Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli claimed the UK is responsible for the migrants because the rescue ship that picked them up is sailing under the flag of the British overseas territory.
The European Commission said that as the flag state, the UK could be responsible, but suggested the circumstances of the rescue also had to be looked at.
The group, which includes 67 unaccompanied minors and is mainly made up of Somalis and Eritreans, was picked up on Friday.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are deeply concerned for the welfare of 141 migrants who have been rescued from the Mediterranean by sailing vessel Aquarius.
“It is well-established that responsibility for arranging disembarkation, at a nearby safe port, is assumed by the relevant regional maritime rescue and co-ordination, and in accordance with the wishes of the ship’s master.
“The UK is committed to working with European partners long term to tackle the shared challenge of irregular migration.”
At a regular briefing for journalists in Brussels, Tove Ernst, the European Commission’s spokeswoman on migration, said: “There is a possibility … that there could be a case for the flag state to be responsible.
“However, this may not be practically feasible and it is also really depending on the situation and who is co-ordinating where the events took place.
“We are now in contact with a number of member states and stand ready to lend our full and swift diplomatic support to resolve this situation.”
Italy has repeatedly refused rescue ships entry to its ports.
Ms Ernst added: “The issue of search and rescue and disembarkation is a question that falls under international law and a matter for national authorities. The commission has no competence or role to play when it comes to disembarkation and cannot assess individual cases.
“While the duty to rescue is clear, there is nothing in the international legal regime as to the responsibility of the flag state for the disembarkation of the rescued persons.”
- Press Association