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Spain’s Catalonia offers to take in Aquarius migrant boat

Catalonia offered Tuesday to let the Aquarius migrant ship at one of its ports, setting the stage for a clash with Madrid which is reluctant to receive the vessel again.

In a Twitter message, Catalonia’s separatist president Quim Torra said he had asked the ports authority in the northeastern region to let the Aquarius dock at one of three seaside resorts: Palamos, Vilanova or Sant Carles de la Rapita.

“Catalonia will always be a welcoming land,” he said.

The ship, which is carrying 141 migrants, had been offered safe haven by Spain’s new Socialist government back in June after being turned away by Italy and Malta with 630 people on board.

But this time, the government is reluctant to repeat the offer amid strong criticism over its welcoming stance from the conservative opposition and the regional Socialist government in Andalusia less than a year from regional and European Union elections.

For migrants, the southern Andalusia region is the main gateway into Spain.

Speaking to AFP on Monday, a Spanish government source said Madrid did not intend to repeat the gesture by allowing the Aquarius to dock in the eastern port of Valencia, saying it was “not the safest port” for the ship.

Writing on Twitter, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s office said Spain was “working intensely” with the European Commission and other countries to find a solution for the vessel.

While the overall numbers of migrants reaching Europe by sea is down from the peak in 2015, Spain has seen a steady increase in sea arrivals that began more than a year ago and has surged in recent months.

The country has overtaken Italy as a destination for migrants arriving by sea after a crackdown by Libyan authorities made it more difficult for migrants to reach Italian shores.

Over 25,000 people have arrived by sea in Spain so far this year, nearly three times more than the same period last year, International Organization for Migration figures show.

Since taking in the Aquarius in June, Spain has opened its ports three more times to NGO ships carrying migrants rescued off Libya.