ROME—The Aquarius rescue ship operated by SOS Mediterranée and Doctors Without Borders under a Gibraltar flag is hardly a luxury yacht. Its purpose is search and rescue—salvation on the high seas for some of the hundreds of thousands of migrants pushed out onto the waters by human smugglers in Libya.
It remains one of the last so-called charity ships patrolling the Mediterranean after most of the others suspended programs amid threats from the heavily armed Libyan Coast Guard and Italy’s increasing impatience with irregular migration.
And the Aquarius has been a particular target for Matteo Salvini, now Italy’s deputy premier and interior minister, whose primary campaign promise was to end a situation where, as he put it, Sicily is “Europe’s refugee camp.” He threatened a naval blockade, a sort of Trumpian wall at sea.
Over the weekend, Salvini closed all Italian ports to the Aquarius, preventing 629 passengers plucked out of the sea from landing on terra firma. They remain aboard the ship, sweltering under the Mediterranean sun. Among them are seven pregnant women, 11 young children and 123 unaccompanied minors.
Behind Salvini’s show about sealing borders, there is a more complicated picture of the Italian Navy and Coast Guard showing some basic human compassion, but trying to disguise it.
Almost half of those rescued had been transferred to the Aquarius by the Italian Navy and Coast Guard, which have made it a convenient practice to avoid bringing the migrants to port by instead giving them to the charity ships to do the supposed dirty work of aiding irregular immigration. The transfer operations are well documented by the MSF crew and this reporter witnessed one first hand last November.
It’s worth noting, too, that when the Aquarius rescues rubber boats, it does so under the direction of the Italian Coast Guard central command in Rome, which assigns case numbers to all boats in distress and dispatches rescuers like the Aquarius to intervene. So, the migrants on the Aquarius are there with explicit permission and assistance of the Italian government, or at least its naval assets.
Thus, on Sunday, the same Italian government rejected the very people it gave the Aquarius permission to save.
Salvini simply announced on Twitter that the ports were closed. Basta. He then sent a missive to the government of Malta to ask it to take the migrants. After all, Malta is on the way to Italy and hasn’t taken a disembarkation of migrants for years. The Maltese don’t conduct search and rescue operations, but do occasionally medevac patients off ships in distress and bury the dead if any wash up on their shores. Malta said no. “The rescue was conducted by Italian officials, not Maltese,” Vanessa Frazier, the Maltese ambassador to Italy told The Daily Beast. “We won’t take them. It’s a matter of principle.”
On Monday morning, neither Malta nor Italy budged. By Monday afternoon in Italy, Salvini dug his heels in further, once again playing a Trump card, as it were, spreading blame. He said Italy had been left to deal with migration alone for too long and that Europe needed to manage this case without it. He cited France for closing its borders and Spain for using armed patrols to stop migrants from landing there. And he pointed out that the Aquarius flies under a Gibraltar flag, pointing a finger to the United Kingdom, too.
The 629 migrants were pawns, and Salvini was not ashamed to use them. It was immediately clear that he was showing that if he was going to manage the gates of Europe’s border, he’d decide who gets in or not.
The European Union retaliated with a feeble message about human rights, echoing scores of humanitarian organizations from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch that poured scorn over Italy’s new populist government’s policies. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who happened to be meeting the head of NATO in Rome as the drama played out, formally asked NATO for help at sea. Margaritis Schinas, the E.U. spokesperson, said, “We call on all involved to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people on board the Aquarius vessel may be safely disembarked as soon as possible.”
Salvini shot back that “all involved” includes all of Europe. Touché.
As the debate continued, the migrants were growing restless. At first, the crew hadn’t told them exactly what the hold-up was. It’s hard to tell people who had nearly died that no one wants them alive. They were stuck under 90 degree temperatures with no showers, few amenities, and little food.
Then Spain saved the day, or at least made it slightly better. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s newly-minted socialist prime minister, said it would allow the ship of desperate unwanted souls to make port at Valencia. Then Malta stepped up and said they would provide food and other supplies to get them to Spain, following it up with some noodles, biscuits and drinking water--but only enough for a day, certainly not enough for the voyage to Spain.
Salvini cried “victory” and said “our first goal has been achieved” at a press conference he published on his Facebook page.
Now the migrant ship is waiting for Italy’s Coast Guard, which still has ownership over this rescue operation, to let it start what could be a 72 hour navigation in sweltering heat. The Aquarius is full of people sleeping on open decks, facing a perilous journey away from the country they thought would save them.
Early Tuesday, the ship was still drifting off the Italian coast. The MSF spokesperson onboard the Aquarius told The Daily Beast it is too dangerous for the passengers to make the long journey to Spain. Negotiations were underway to remove 500 of the 629 people to Italian and Frontex border control vessels and travel as a convoy to Spain. MSF says it would be more humane to dock in Italy and move the people by land.
Salvini said he would treat all rescue boats the same way. But he will allow an Italian Coast Guard vessel that picked more than 900 migrants on Sunday to dock in Sicily on Tuesday.
With the Aquarius caught up in the standoff, and no other charity boats to offload them onto, they had no choice but to bring the migrants to Italy.
The Libyan Coast Guard, which was omnipresent in recent weeks, is missing in action, likely waiting to see if Italy’s new government will make good on promises to invest even more money in the Libyan fleet. Meanwhile, more migrant boats are leaving Libya, now utterly at the mercy of the sea.