The MV Aquarius used to be a German Coast Guard and fisheries protection vessel that, back then (1977) was christened the Meerkatze. It was re-christened the Aquarius in 2016, when it was acquired by the NGOs SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders as a life-saving rescue vessel used to save would-be refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Italy from war-torn and poverty-stricken areas of Africa in unseaworthy vessels that often sink or capsize killing thousands in recent years.
|The Aquarius operated by SOS Méditeranée and Doctors |
These desperate voyagers form part of a major flow of mostly African diaspora feeding the current refugee crisis in Europe. It is clear that this sort of mass migration has posed a humanitarian dilemma for numerous countries in Europe and that some, like Germany and France, have stepped up to help handle the influx, while others have sought to deflect the problem. Mass migration was, for instance, one of the main considerations behind the Brexit referendum, which is in the process of ending Britain’s membership in the European Union. Britain has, like the United States, chosen to see migration as a national security rather than a humanitarian issue.
Until now, because of its relative proximity to Libya, Italy has been a main port of entry for Africans seeking asylum. But as of earlier this month, Italy’s new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a law professor who has never held political office before, has implemented a new rightwing populist government that is taking a harsh stance on immigration, while stirring anti-European Union sentiments among his base. His Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has now begun to turn away rescued asylum-seekers arriving by sea from African and Arab countries, as well as from places like Bangladesh.
|The Lifeline, operated by Mission Lifeline|
As a result, the Aquarius was not permitted to dock in Italy earlier this month with several hundred rescued migrants on board. It was, instead, escorted to Spanish waters after the government of Spain offered to permit debarkation of refugees in Valencia, some 850 nautical miles away. The island nation of Malta south of Italy is also refusing rescued refugees and another ship, the Lifeline, operated under a Dutch flag by the German NGO Mission Lifeline, had to negotiate with the Maltese government to put into port there after the ship ran into trouble and had to dock for repairs.
In the case of both ships, Italy’s new government has a new take and is toying with the idea of charging them with human trafficking. The idea is that if those being rescued knew that there would be no rescue ships to pick them up, they would no longer put out to sea in inadequate small craft.
This last is an oversimplification of the situation. The reality is that the drama of desperate refugees setting sail in death-trap vessels operated by the real human smugglers, who have built a nearly 200-million-dollar a year business based of human misery, predates the rescue effort, which is a humanitarian response to, rather than a cause of the current refugee crisis. Criminalizing such efforts by equating them with trafficking promises to tie the hands of the NGO’s operating them.
Furthermore, the message hidden behind the flimsy justification which supposes that if there’s no rescue there will be no migrant issue is a policy that seeks to curtail help and let the problem sort itself out. In other words, simply provide no lifeline and let the would-be refugees drown.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said it best: “We are facing a migration situation that no one can fix alone. If we look at the reality of things, we cannot just speak of a 'migration crisis.' It is a European political crisis.” This is certainly true in neighboring Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal humanitarian immigration policy could well cost her a no-confidence vote led by neo-nationalists following her 13 years as the head of state.
But Macron is right that it is a burgeoning problem that no one can fix alone, but also one that no one can ignore. It is, moreover, a problem created over the course of decades to a large extent by many of the Western nations, including the United States and Britain, that are most adamant about doing nothing to mitigate the consequences.
If every country in the West were to do its duty and its share, it would be a problem that could indeed find a solution. But the new far-right is taking the world in a direction that we thought had ended with World War II and the later fall of the Berlin Wall. Namely, a return to nationalism, isolationism and an autistic view of the world, just when what the world needs most is compassion, empathy and cooperation to solve its pressing humanitarian and environmental crises.