Last week, the rescue vessel Alan Kurdi, which was carrying 65 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya, was denied permission to dock in Italy. But on Friday, Malta came to the rescue, agreeing to take in 54 migrants, followed by an additional 44 migrants soon after. This is the third time Malta has come to the reluctant rescue after Italy closed its ports. However, in exchange, Malta would send 55 migrants to Italy, already residing within Maltese borders.
Premier Joseph Muscat had tweeted earlier that “following discussions with the EU Commission and the German government”, the people would be transferred from the Alan Kurdi to a Maltese military “asset which will then enter a Maltese port”.
“All rescued persons on board will be immediately relocated to other EU member states“, he added.
Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth thanked Malta via Twitter for their role. “What we really need is a sustainable European solution based on solidarity, humanity and efficiency. We must act right now”, Roth said.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Germany would ultimately take in up to 40 migrants – 15 to 20 from the Alan Kurdi, and the rest from a different group rescued by Maltese authorities.
The odd solution is increasingly typical, as both countries are initial ports of call, or “frontline nations”, for refugees and migrants rescued on the dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean sea. But in the absence of EU-wide legislation, and unable or unwilling to cope with the constant inflow, both countries have closed their ports to NGO rescue ships, unless agreements are made for refugees to carry on to other countries. So far, this has been done only on a case-by-case basis.
The Alan Kurdi – named after a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned while attempting to make the crossing – is not the only rescue vessel to be in the news lately. On June 29th, a similar German rescue vessel, Sea Watch 3, made international headlines when, after being forced to wait for two weeks, its captain – Carola Rackete – faced arrest when docking at the Italian port city of Lampedusa.
In response to her arrest, people around the world rallied to her defence and even launched a change.org petition, with over five hundred thousand signatures and one million euros raised for her legal fees. In the end, Rackete was released from house arrest after a court ruling that she had broken no laws and had acted to protect passengers’ safety. However, Rackete still faces charges of helping people smugglers and resisting the authorities after forcing her way past Italian Customs boats.
Soon after her release, Rackete’s lawyer filed a lawsuit against Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for defamation, alleging that he had incited his followers on social media to threaten her.
For Italy, these big headlines are actually something of a success. Since taking office a year ago, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has introduced a slew of measures aimed at slowing or halting, altogether, the influx of migrants into Italy, many of whom are fleeing continued chaos in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa. Just last month, he issued a decree that would impose fines of up to fifty thousand euros for the captain, owner and operator of a vessel “entering Italian territorial waters without authorisation”. But recent events caused Salvini to rethink his leniency on the matter, saying he would raise the maximum fine to one million euros.
“I do not authorise any landing for those who couldn’t care less about Italian laws and help the people smugglers”, Salvini tweeted late Saturday.
The harsh line seems to have worked. Only 2,790 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, according to official data, down 83 percent compared to the same period in 2018, and down 97 percent regarding 2017 levels. And only one in ten migrants makes it into Italy.
Italy’s government has accused NGO rescue boats of acting as a “taxi service” into Europe and being in cahoots with smugglers and human traffickers. And in fact, Alan Kurdi’s captain, Tommaso Stella, is being investigated for allegedly aiding illegal immigration, according to the Italian news agency AGI.
“NGOs have found a new way to be in the spotlight. They go to Libyan waters, they take people who could have been saved by the Libyan navy, they come to Italy and the show begins”, said Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio on Friday.
Naturally, the NGOs and charities deny these accusations, noting that thousands would die making the perilous crossing if it weren’t for their labours. Even with rescue efforts in play, scores of people die trying to make it across.
“Nobody puts their lives and the lives of their families at risk on these desperate boat journeys unless they feel they have no other choice”, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Mediterranean, said in a statement.
Case by Case
“We cannot be responsible for boats with people rescued from shipwrecks on board spending weeks on the Mediterranean because they can’t find a port”, wrote Seehofer to Salvini, asking him to rethink his policy on refusing to accept rescue boats. Responding via Facebook livestream, Salvini said, “No, no, no, absolutely not.”
Currently, E.U. regulations require asylum requests to be processed by the member state in which a migrant first disembarks. Often, that means countries on the Mediterranean, like Italy, Greece, and Malta, are on the front line, absorbing the vast majority of those who make the crossing. And frequently, the people already living there feel overwhelmed, leading to hard-line policies and ad hoc deals to push migrants into other EU states.
The current system is untenable, and everyone knows it, despite the fact that migration has slowed from its height during the crisis in 2015 and 2016.
Malta has its own stringent immigration rules, and currently the ad hoc deals with other countries rely on keeping people in limbo, often in dangerous conditions, until agreements are hashed out. Now, with Italian ports closed, even more pressure falls on the island nation. And Malta is already the EU’s most densely populated state, with a population of less than five hundred thousand on a land area encompassing only 122 square miles.
“When he closed the ports, he dramatically increased the pressure on Malta”, said Gerald Knaus, the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative. “But everybody in Europe knows that Malta cannot be the place where you can disembark people to stay in large numbers.”
Carlotta Weibl, a spokeswoman for the rescue group Sea-Eye, said, “Malta is a super tiny island, so they say of course we cannot take all the people on our own; other European member states have to take people as well”, she said. “These ad hoc solutions we have now, they waste a lot of time and resources and they place people in danger.”
The Italian and Maltese foreign ministers, Enzo Moavero and Carmelo Abela, issued a joint statement saying “it is no longer permissible to proceed on a case-by-case basis, seeking solutions in emergencies, with growing political difficulties and very serious hardships”, calling for a “permanent mechanism at the level of the European Union that faces all the sensitive questions concerning migration”, to be discussed at the EU’s next Foreign Affairs Council meeting later this month. Currently, in the absence of any EU-wide solution, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is cooperating more often with French President Emmanuel Macron, to craft these ad hoc solutions more efficiently, even as Malta makes it more difficult for humanitarian organisations to keep boats there.
“At the moment, it’s a crisis every single time. And that’s not sustainable”, Knaus said. “It’s like a Greek tragedy and you already know the end.”