European governments must put people's lives before politics

Diplomatic Stand Off Mediterranean Sea


NEW YORK/AMSTERDAM/VALENCIA, JUNE 17, 2018—Following Italy’s refusal last week to allow more than 600 vulnerable people rescued in the Mediterranean to disembark at its ports, their rescue ship arrived in Valencia, Spain, today after several unnecessary additional days at sea. 

The fate of those aboard the Aquarius search and rescue vessel, operated by SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), became caught in a political stand-off, endangering the passengers and preventing the Aquarius from carrying out additional search activities in the Mediterranean. MSF denounces European governments’ choices to place political point-scoring before saving lives at sea, and calls on them to take immediate steps to prevent an incident like this from happening again.

“The men, women, and children on board the Aquarius have fled conflict and poverty, and have survived horrific abuse in Libya,” said Karline Kleijer, MSF head of emergencies. “They have been shipped from one boat to another like cargo and endured the elements on an unnecessarily long journey at sea. We are grateful to Spain for stepping in, even as Italian and other European governments have shamefully failed in their humanitarian responsibilities and placed politics over the lives of vulnerable people.”

Ahead of a European Council meeting next week, MSF is calling on European governments to commit to facilitating swift disembarkation of migrants at the closest safe ports in Europe, where rescued people can receive adequate care. Governments must also ensure those in need of international protection can apply for asylum or other forms of protection. Additionally, they must not obstruct independent non-governmental search and rescue initiatives, and must set up a proactive, dedicated search and rescue mechanism in the Central Mediterranean.

Italy closes its ports and plays with the lives of 629 people

Last weekend, the Aquarius rescued more than 200 people and received an additional 400 people from Italian naval and coastguard ships. Although the rescues and transfers of the 629 people were initiated and coordinated by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), the Italian authorities broke with past practice and international law and denied Aquarius authorization to bring them to the closest port of safety in Italy. Malta, which had the nearest safe port, also refused to allow the Aquarius to disembark, citing Italy’s coordination role and responsibility.

Eventually, on June 11, the Spanish government intervened and offered to let the Aquarius disembark in Valencia, more than 800 miles away.

MSF continued to press the Italian authorities to authorize disembarkation at the closest safe port, as stipulated under international maritime law. MSF also raised serious safety and humanitarian concerns over sailing with 629 passengers, including pregnant women, in an overcrowded boat for four more days without adequate shelter or sufficient food.

“Often, the Italian authorities appeared callous,” Kleijer said. “At first, they suggested that MSF transfer any vulnerable people. However, when MSF provided a list of almost 200 people, including unaccompanied minors, the sick and injured, pregnant women, and women with children traveling alone, they refused. The Italian authorities then requested that we transfer only the seven pregnant women, but failed to respond to MSF’s concern about separating families and the need for husbands to accompany their pregnant partners.”

Despite MSF’s concerns about the humanitarian and medical impact of the sea journey to Valencia, the Italian authorities instructed Aquarius on June 12 to transfer 524 people back to Italian ships and embark with the remaining 106 rescued on a four-day journey to Spain.

“Italian authorities shamefully closed their ports to 629 rescued people and moved them around the sea for political point-scoring,” Kleijer said. “Even if Italy has legitimate grievances about other European governments failing to accept their share of refugees, that’s no justification for this degrading treatment.”

Rescued people are caught between European political agendas

This week’s events in the Central Mediterranean underscore the wider political dynamics on migration in Europe. Many European governments have not prioritized saving the lives of vulnerable migrants and refugees at sea. Instead, they have tightened their borders and closed their doors. They have actively supported the Libyan coastguard to return people rescued in international waters to Libya, where they will be forced to endure further inhumane and abusive treatment.

Throughout Europe, governments have not given enough support to frontline countries, such as Italy and Greece, which process the vast majority of arriving asylum-seekers and migrants. States have not taken on their responsibility to share the relocation of asylum-seekers across Europe.

“Europeans governments must appreciate the importance of search and rescue. More than 500 people have drowned in 2018 while attempting the perilous journey on unseaworthy dinghies across the Central Mediterranean,” Kleijer said. “According to news reports, 12 people died this week in one incident in which a United States naval ship rescued 40 survivors after their dinghy capsized.”

The Aquarius is one of only a few remaining independent non-governmental search and rescue vessels still operating in the Central Mediterranean. Yet this does not mean the need is gone. By June 8, the Aquarius had already rescued and/or transferred 2,350 people in 2018, all of whom would otherwise have drowned. Independent search and rescue capacity has dwindled over the past year due to bureaucratic barriers and legal proceedings against staff working for non-governmental search and rescue initiatives.

“Valencia is the end of a terrible ordeal for 629 people. But there needs to be a serious European commitment to save lives and disembark rescued people properly,” Kleijer said. “As long as governments fail to fulfill their responsibilities, the teams on board the Aquarius will continue to conduct search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean.”


Lauren King/MSF