Spain has “opened its arms at a time when many reject (refugees) and are not showing solidarity,” Elhadj As Sy of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told AFP in the Spanish port of Valencia, where he was overseeing the arrival of 630 migrants from the Aquarius rescue boat.
“There are 66 million people right now seeking refuge and some of them are coming of course to Europe like they are going to other places because they are looking for support, they are looking for solidarity,” he added.
“Those are values that Europe is promoting. And we also expect from Europe to put those values into practice like we are seeing here today.”
The Aquarius migrants rescued off Libya's coast last weekend were left in high-seas limbo after Italy and Malta bickered over who should accept them, sparking a major migration row.
Spain eventually agreed to take them in.
“We call on all other countries to follow suit in helping those in need in the name of the one fundamental principle, which is one humanity which we all share,” As Sy said.
He recalled that one-third of Lebanon's population is made up of refugees, with another one million refugees in Jordan and three million in Turkey.
Spain's new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez offered Monday to allow the Aquarius to dock in Valencia “to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe” and “comply with our human rights obligations”.
The migrants, most of them from Africa, were welcomed by a team of more than 2,000 people, including 470 translators and 1,000 Red Cross volunteers who distributed basic items such as blankets, clothes and hygiene kits.
As Sy said the Aquarius case could change the way Europe handles migration.
“If people sustain the efforts that are being made and we do not see a one-off operation, it could be a game changer,” he said.
“Be it in Valencia or anywhere else where we have witnessed people arriving, we have seen people spontaneously come out to help. I think when people see more and more the benefit of helping others, that can alleviate fears and misunderstandings, and misinterpretations for political… games,” he added.
“What matters at the end of the day is the humanitarian support and assistance.”
He also hailed France's offer to accept Aquarius migrants who meet the criteria for asylum.
“That is of course welcome. I hope that they can continue and do more and that other countries will follow suit as well,” he said.
'Symbol of many others'
Hundreds of international journalists were accredited to cover Sunday's arrival of the migrants in Valencia.
“We are happy that this is being covered because it is a symbol of (the fate of other migrant ships)… Attention should be drawn to the fact that this situation has to be managed and responded to in a humane way,” As Sy said.
“There should be space for people to feel safe, where people should have the opportunity to develop themselves and care for themselves and their families,” he added.
He stressed more needed to be done to avoid that migrants “do not fall in the hands of traffickers and smugglers”.
Countries have an obligation to host and protect asylum-seekers “according to international law for refugees but also according to the principles of humanity,” As Sy said.
By AFP's Diego Urdaneta