More than 500 rescued migrants are stuck in the Mediterranean on two NGO boats as Italy and Malta continue to deny them access to their ports.
The United Nations refugee agency is calling on European governments to urgently allow in more than 500 people rescued in the Mediterranean but who remain stranded at sea as countries bicker over who should take them.
UNHCR special envoy Vincent Cochetel said on Tuesday that "this is a race against time." He said, "Storms are coming and conditions are only going to get worse."
The migrants are aboard two ships chartered by humanitarian aid groups, but Italy's anti-migrant government is denying them access to its ports.
French charity group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said late Monday in a tweet that it had completed "a critical rescue" of another 105 people onto the Ocean Viking, raising the total number of migrants on board ship to 356.
Another 150 migrants remain on board the Spanish charity vessel, the Proactiva Open Arms.
Salvini tells rescue ships to steer clear of Italy
Italy's hard-line interior minister Matteo Salvini reiterated on Tuesday his intent on making sure the two migrant ships don't enter Italian ports.
Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, who has seen his popularity in Italy soar since he took office last year and launched a fierce anti-immigration crackdown, said the boats were not Rome's problem.
"I am at work in the ministry this morning to prevent more than 500 migrants from disembarking from two NGO boats, one French and one Spanish," Salvini wrote on Facebook.
"I will let you know how this ends. I will not give up."
Earlier this month, Salvini introduced a new law hiking fines for ships that enter Italian waters without authorisation to up to $1.12 million (1 million euros). It also provides for the arrest of captains who ignore orders to stay away and calls on naval authorities to seize their boats automatically.
Salvini said Libya had offered to take back the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking and said Open Arms should go to Spain.
Spain said Italy should deal with the migrants with immediate care.
"International law states that a rescue takes place in the closest safe port. Without doubt, right now that means Italy. If it was us, we would do it," Spain's acting development minister Jose Luis Abalos told Telecinco television on Tuesday.
However, he also said Europe needed to forge a "wider" policy to handle migrant arrivals from Africa.
Italy has taken in more than 600,000 boat migrants since 2014, but new arrivals have fallen sharply over the past two years, with the decline accelerating over the past year.
Latest figures say 4,265 migrants have reached Italy so far in 2019, down 78 percent on the same period in 2018 and down 96 percent on 2017 levels.
Calls for action
Doctors Without Borders has ruled out taking migrants to violence-plagued Libya, saying migrants are routinely tortured and abused there.
Open Arms has called for the European Union to coordinate the re-distribution of the migrants around the bloc.
The United Nations' refugee agency called on European governments to intervene, warning that storms were approaching.
"To leave people who have fled war and violence in Libya on the high seas in this weather would be to inflict suffering upon suffering," said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean.
"They must be immediately allowed to dock, and allowed to receive much-needed humanitarian aid."
The UNHCR says nearly 600 people have died or gone missing in waters between Libya and Italy this year.
The European Commission says it's urging member countries to take action and is offering support, but has no power to intervene.