A collective sigh of relief echoed among nonprofit workers and the 141 migrants aboard the MV Aquarius last week after the Maltese government granted temporary safe harbour to the rescue ship.
The Aquarius, which completed its rescue mission off Libya’s coast on August 10, was initially refused port by Malta, Italy, Spain and the UK, stranding its occupants at sea for four days. As tensions escalated, EU leaders convened last week to stave off a humanitarian emergency. As part of a responsibility-sharing scheme, Malta agreed to revoke its blockade, welcoming the migrants before they are distributed among Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and Luxembourg.
The migrants – largely hailing from Somalia and Eritrea – disembarked in Senglea, a port city in Malta’s Grand Harbour, on August 15. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) oversaw the disembarkation and ensured that migrants received adequate medical checks before they were driven to reception centres for registration. Pregnant women, infants, and some of the 67 unaccompanied minors received further hospital treatment.
“The people we rescued have been through hardship in Libya”, noted a member of the NGO SOS Méditerranée, taking stock of the physical and psychological health of those aboard the Aquarius. The ship, jointly run by SOS Méditerranée (a French-German charity) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has been operating as a rescue vessel for migrants crossing the Mediterranean since February 2016. This past June, the ship was at the centre of a dramatic international stand-off until Spain’s new Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, granted the 630 migrants aboard safe harbour in Valencia. Echoing the stance of President Sánchez, SOS Méditerranée released a statement saying, “Long term sustainable solutions that address the humanitarian crisis on the Central Mediterranean are still desperately needed. This is the responsibility of the EU as a whole, and we look forward to seeing more concrete examples of European leadership and solidarity on the issue in the future”.
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Malta has undertaken some missions to rescue migrants in distress in its own right. Just this past Saturday, the Armed Forces of Malta picked up a ship roughly 70 miles south of the country carrying 61 people. However, the country had recently prohibited independent NGO rescue vessels entry and exit from its ports, as a consequence of a similar situation with an NGO-owned vessel MV Lifeline in late June. Now three Dutch ships – the MV Lifeline, the SeaWatch, and the Seefuchs – are all currently impounded in the Grand Harbour as authorities verify their respective registrations.
Wendy Borg, a spokeswoman for the Maltese government, said that Malta was “making a concession allowing [the Aquarius] to enter its ports, despite having no legal obligation to do so”. She noted that Malta would “serve as a logistical base” as its contribution in the shared responsibility deal. Ultimately, 60 of the migrants will go France, 60 to Spain, 30 to Portugal and the remaining will be hosted by Germany and Luxembourg. Borg dubbed the agreement a “concrete example of European leadership and solidarity”.
In the spirit of solidarity, EU leaders met at the end of June to tease out a multilateral deal on migration. Widely viewed as fruitful, the meeting produced a tentative plan to develop migratory “control centres” – jointly-run reception facilities located in willing EU member states. If and when such centres are constructed, they will likely ease significant burden for rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean who are seeking friendly harbours.
The agreement surrounding the Aquarius between Malta and its five peers is a promising indicator of the high potential of collective reception facilities, when used in combination with a distribution scheme. SOS Méditerranée representatives expressed relief at the outcome of the multilateral agreement, but also reiterated grave concerns about the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean. Verena Papke, the group’s Germany chief, declared, “The Aquarius of course has the intention and obligation to set sail again as soon as possible, back into the rescue zone off the Libyan coast”.
Brand new stand-offs are unfolding in Mediterranean waters ever more frequently as people continue to flee hardship in search of safety in Europe. Coming together and finally implementing a routine system for shared reception and hosting responsibilities may be the key for EU leaders to preempt and prevent catastrophe.