Aquarius reveals divided Europe
A rescue ship carrying hundreds of people was left stranded in the middle of the sea with no food or water. The new rightist coalition government in Italy would not help. Spain agreed to let them dock but there is just no way to get there. France does some serious, hard talking to Italy. The rescue ship stranded in the Mediterranean Sea, since Sunday, is now on its way to Spain, where the government has agreed to accept the 630 people on board. The migrants on board the Aquarius would be given a 15-day permit to stay, during which they would be able to start the process of seeking asylum. Left to drift for two days in the waters between the Italian and Maltese coasts, the Aquarius search-and-rescue vessel has become the latest symbol of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. It all started with a single tweet and escalated into a diplomatic hot potato that has pitted Europe's countries against one another. How did matters escalate? The Aquarius rescued 630 people while on patrol off the coast of Libya over the weekend, the ship's operators SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said. With more than 120 unaccompanied minors and six pregnant women on board, the ship was then directed to travel north in search of a safe harbour by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC). The vessel's journey came to an abrupt halt when the Italian Coast Guard told Aquarius to hold its position, which the aid groups said. Matteo Salvini, Italy's new hardline interior minister and leader of the anti-immigration League party, refused to allow it to dock. He also suggested preventing a second foreign-flagged search-and-rescue vessel, Sea-Watch 3, operated by a group of German volunteers and currently positioned off the coast of Libya, from docking. On Tuesday morning, the ship recovered 41 survivors and 12 bodies from a shipwreck off the Libyan Coast. But Italy has been accused of operating a "double standard" on the issue after an Italian Coast Guard boat carrying 937 rescued migrants was allowed to dock in Catania, Sicily on Wednesday. What is happening now? Italy dispatched two ships to assist the overcrowded Aquarius on Tuesday afternoon as it began its four-day voyage to Spain after the country's newly assembled government stepped up and offered to take in the survivors. Around 250 people were transferred to the Italian Navy's Orione and a further 274 to the Coast Guard vessel Dattilo, SOS Méditerranée said. The Aquarius now has just 106 survivors on board, according to MSF. All three ships are en route to Valencia, Spain – a roughly 800-mile journey that is likely to encounter bad weather. The director general of the United Nations Migration Agency (IOM), tweeted that while he was glad that Spain had stepped forward to defuse the crisis, "I fear a major tragedy if states start refusing to accept rescued migrants as was threatened." France criticised Italy for rejecting the Aquarius on Tuesday. The French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux quoted President Emmanuel Macron as saying there was "a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government's behaviour," the news agency reported. The French remarks drew an angry response from Rome. The Spanish government said that, during the process of claiming asylum, they would get the same rights in Spain as Spanish nationals, until their application is processed. That could take up to two years. Why did Italy refuse to help? The Mediterranean remains the world's deadliest migration route and Italy has handled what it considers to be its fair share of migrants trying to reach Europe by boat. The new populist government, refused to grant the survivors entry, demanding that other European nations help deal with the issue. During Italy's recent election, Salvini had seized on an anti-immigration sentiment in the country and pledged to deport 500,000 migrants. While his rhetoric has softened slightly since he took office, he declared that Italy "cannot be Europe's refugee camp" during a recent visit to Sicily. But, data from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shows that Italy has actually seen a decline of around 77 per cent in sea arrivals in the past year. Instead, the number of migrants now landing on Spanish shores has escalated. So far, in 2018, that figure has grown drastically from the same period last year. In circumstances such as these, the UNO helps. But what can it do if some of the member states decide to look the other way? Earlier, European countries did set grand precedents when it came to humanitarian efforts. But, if the new coalition government in Italy does what it did, what can be said in its defence?