The diplomatic quarrel over the Aquarius migrant ship is the latest battle in a war of words in which men, women and children are being held hostage to politicking.
By Giulia Laganà
Since the new Italian government was sworn in just days ago, the overarching focus of its actions and statements has been the “migration emergency” unfolding in the Mediterranean. The interior minister and deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has thundered incessantly about the “good times” being over for irregular migrants and has threatened NGO groups rescuing refugees and migrants off the coast of Libya – defined as “deputy smugglers” - with a total ban on disembarkation in Italian ports.
Last weekend, Salvini went a step further, barring the Aquarius, a vessel chartered by international charities Doctors without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, from taking 629 people, including over 120 unaccompanied children, to Italy. The ship, Italy claimed, was close to Malta and should dock there, regardless of the fact that the multiple rescue operations which saved its passengers had been coordinated and carried out by the Italian maritime authorities. Malta, which has been reluctant to take in rescued migrants in the past, refused to grant access to its waters to the Aquarius. A diplomatic stand-off ensued, while 629 people who had endured long, harrowing journeys from their homes and had been plucked from a near-certain death on unseaworthy dinghies waited, with food and water supplies dwindling. Spain’s new government stepped in, citing its commitment to humanitarian principles and offering to take in the refugees and migrants. As of the time of writing, the Aquarius as well as an Italian navy ship and coast guard boat were en route to Valencia, with the 629 people distributed between the vessels.
So is all well? Has European solidarity prevailed? Is the “emergency” being tackled? And is this a victory for Salvini, as he claims, given that he has broken the deadlock over disembarking migrants in other EU countries?
Spain’s new government has certainly demonstrated genuine solidarity, although less in the way the word is used in EU jargon – as shorthand for “burden-sharing” between member states – and more with the refugees and migrants trying to reach safety in Europe. But the war of words between European countries as men, women and children were effectively held hostage to politicking, and the huge logistical operation to transfer people repeatedly between ships and then transport them on a long journey across the Mediterranean, will seem surreal to those looking back at this period in a few decades’ time.
READ MORE: The Aquarius: A look back on the torrid journey from Africa to Europe
For what crisis are these governments panicking about? 37,000 migrants have crossed the sea to Europe thus far this year, with 15,300 arriving in Italy, a country of 60 million. Yet in Italy – and in Brussels, where a showdown over reforming the EU asylum system is expected to dominate a summit at the end of the month – one would think that millions of people were pouring across Europe’s borders. Despite the dramatic drop in arrivals since the one-off 2015-2016 peak, the EU’s default response has been to operate in crisis mode – whether or not one actually exists. Since 2016, divisions between member states over hosting refugees and migrants have become more entrenched, populists have exploited migration to win votes – regardless of the actual numbers arriving – and prospects have faded of reforming a dysfunctional system which forces most arriving asylum seekers to stay in the first EU country of entry. The need of extremist parties to keep tensions high over the “crisis” to keep instilling fear into voters’ hearts and mainstream governments’ failure to agree on reform therefore came together around a unifying consensus: the external borders must be sealed.
In this context, Salvini’s actions are neither unprecedented, nor isolated. The previous Italian government successfully brought down migrant arrivals through questionable means which effectively trapped more people in horrific conditions in Libya – and did so with the explicit aim of outflanking Salvini’s party, the League, a strategy which clearly failed to work in electoral terms. On 12 June, Salvini and his German counterpart, Horst Seehofer, had a cordial telephone call and agreed to present a joint proposal on “border protection”. In rather unfortunate language, Austria, which will hold the EU presidency as of 1 July, promptly suggested that Berlin, Vienna and Rome form an “axis” against irregular migration. The Austrian government has already stated that it has no qualms about ditching attempts to reform the Dublin regulation, the cornerstone of EU asylum policies, which the EU institutions and member states have wasted time and energy wrangling over for the last two years. Instead, the incoming presidency’s priority will be – guess what? Border management plus the recurring idea of offshoring asylum processing or return procedures in countries neighbouring the EU, such as those in the Western Balkans.
So far, this approach does not appear to have brought any benefits for EU citizens. Instead, it has caused additional suffering for migrants and refugees. And it has been combined with an increasing crackdown on NGOs providing assistance to migrants. In Hungary, special legislation has been rolled out and NGOs working with asylum seekers and refugees may soon be barred from operating altogether thanks to new laws and constitutional amendments due to be approved soon. Though extreme, Hungary is not unique, with NGOs and individuals being criminalised for helping migrants in many EU countries, from Denmark to France and Italy. By stopping NGO vessels from disembarking migrants in Italy, Salvini is seeking to put an end to their rescue operations. Before and if they give up, forcing them – and Italian navy assets – to spend days at sea ferrying people to distant EU countries will reduce rescue capacity. More people will die, but even fewer will arrive in Italy – a “success” for the Italian government.
Common sense and a return to rational concepts of what constitutes a crisis should allow EU governments to build a functioning asylum system and distribute a few thousand people around the 500 million bloc. But at the European Council on 28-29 June, expect more crisis talk, acrimony – and a renewed consensus to keep people out regardless of the cost.
Giulia Laganà is a senior analyst on EU migration and asylum policies at the Open Society European Policy Institute.
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