The case of Aquarius is just a tipping point of European migration policy


Picture of Inma Vazquez
Inma Vazquez

Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) Representative to the EU and NATO

Inma Vazquez is Representative at Médecins Sans Frontières

The saga of the Aquarius has been a pitiful spectacle: vulnerable people “packed” in the decks of an overcrowded boat, after a traumatic rescue, waiting on politicians to negotiate their “burden sharing”.

Some passengers had been resuscitated and were at risk of severe medical complications; some had serious chemical burns or old infected wounds which needed immediate surgical evaluation and operations. There were children, pregnant women and 123 unaccompanied minors. Nothing can justify this use of human beings as instruments to pressure the political negotiations around the asylum reform of Europe.

The weekend of 9-10 June was a nightmare in the Central Mediterranean: the Aquarius jointly operated by SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) rescued 229 people from two rubber boats. A total of 629 people were rescued from the sea. The nightmare continued when Italy and Malta denied disembarkation to the Aquarius. Using medical and family criteria, MSF selected 200 vulnerable people in need of urgent transfer to a close and safe port. However, Italy was only prepared to take the pregnant women without their family.

Eventually, Spain allowed Aquarius to dock at one of its ports on humanitarian grounds. As Aquarius could not make it to Valencia with so many people on-board, Italy decided to transfer 523 people back to Italian vessels, which lead to a new painful transfer in adverse weather conditions.

Solutions are difficult to find, but they must be found, out of respect for human lives and dignity

Search and rescue activities alone are by no means a solution but, at the moment, they constitute a humanitarian imperative, as safe and legal alternatives to escape abuse and exploitation inside Libya are almost non-existent.

Dismantling proactive and dedicated search and rescue activities will cost lives at sea, and there is a risk that people could be more deeply trapped in Libya. In 2015, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, after a tragedy at sea that cost the lives of 800 people, said, “it was a serious mistake to bring the Mare Nostrum Operation to an end.” Yet, Mare Nostrum was never replaced with any other government-led, proactive and dedicated capacity. NGOs have needed to step up their work while confronting increasing pressure and administrative obstacles. Some media and politicians have even accused them of colluding with the traffickers.

Italy and Europe decided that scaling up the capacity of the Libyan Coast Guard and backing a Libyan Search and Rescue was a valid alternative. More capacity for rescues in Libyan territorial waters could have made a positive difference, but today the interception of boats is prioritised over the safety of the people at risk.

For many months now, in international waters, Italian maritime authorities have instructed us to stay on standby in front of boats in distress waiting for the Libyan Coast Guard to arrive and intercept people in order to take them back to Libya. This wait can last up to four hours and is an inhumane practice, which also increases the risk of drowning. Disobeying instructions by the Italian authorities can result in the government denying disembarkment or seizing the vessel under spurious smuggling accusations. It can also provoke criminal investigations against NGO staff members. The European Commission spokesperson has recently called on all parties to respect this code.

The real, most effective alternative would be to urgently scale up safe and legal channels starting by those trapped inside Libya. On a daily basis we deal with people who are physically and mentally broken, and we have shared countless testimonies of abuse and exploitation. We treat people and their wounds, but we cannot protect them as remaining in arbitrary detention is often the only choice. We feel powerless. UNHCR has only managed to evacuate 1,474 vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers from detention centres in Libya ‒ 1,152 of which were relocated to Niger, 312 to Italy and 10 to Romania.

The European states have loudly announced pledges to resettle 40,000 people. However, their words do not match with the reality, and we have not seen any sign of rapid improvement. Of those evacuated to Niger, only 108 people have been resettled to Europe.

Search and rescue activities alone are by no means a solution but, at the moment, they constitute a humanitarian imperative

A few weeks ago, approximately 140 people escaped a clandestine jail run by traffickers in Libya – they were shot while attempting to flee, and survivors told our staff that dozens of people were either killed or left behind. The majority of victims were transferred to official detention centres in Tripoli, and it is unsure whether the United Nations will be able to help them out soon enough and if there will be a place for them to go. While in detention, they received threats and remain at risk.

After the debacle with the Aquarius, three other vessels, the Lifeline (NGO), the Alessandro Maersk (commercial) and the Trenton (US navy) languished at sea for several days, negotiating where to disembark their unwanted commodity of human beings.

Meanwhile, Italy and Malta have sent a clear message: from now on, the Libyan Coast Guard is in charge. This was the instruction given in late June, when emergency calls from boats in distress were received. The result of this decision is that approximately 2000 people have since been disembarked back in Libya. Three hundred of them were taken to a detention centre we recently visited, where there was so much overcrowding in the men’s cell that it was impossible to walk through without stepping on the mattresses.

We hear Italy’s concerns. We hear Europe’s concerns. At the same time, however, along the Balkan route, in Greece, in Italy, in France, in Libya and at sea, we treat these victims of Europe’s fears. Solutions are difficult to find, but they must be found, out of respect for human lives and dignity.

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