Wednesday 22 May 2019

Spain reports 933 migrants saved from Med as it awaits the arrival of Aquarius

Migrants onboard the MV Aquarius at sea. Photo: AFP PHOTO / MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES
Migrants onboard the MV Aquarius at sea. Photo: AFP PHOTO / MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES

Lorne Cook

Spain's maritime rescue service yesterday said it had saved 933 people and recovered four bodies from dozens of migrant boats attempting the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean over the past two days.

The service said it pulled the migrants from a total of 68 smuggling boats that rescue craft intercepted throughout last Friday and yesterday morning after they departed from African shores.

The spike in arrivals comes as Spain prepares to receive the 630 migrants on the Aquarius, after Italy and Malta refused to let the aid ship land in their ports last Saturday. The Aquarius and two Italian ships carrying the migrants are expected to arrive at Spain's eastern port of Valencia later today.

The migrants will be met by emergency workers, including health officials and psychologists. Spanish authorities say they will examine them case by case to see if they qualify for asylum.

The shipload of migrants who were forced to spend days crossing the western Mediterranean include 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and as many as seven pregnant women.

Spain announced yesterday that it had accepted an offer by the French government to take in those migrants who want to go to France "once they have fulfilled the protocols established for their arrival".

The statement said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez "appreciated the co-operation of France's President Macron and believes this is the framework of co-operation that Europe should use to respond" to immigration.

Italy and Malta's refusal to allow the Aquarius to enter their ports has created a row between EU members over how to handle immigration. Spain's new Socialist government has taken up the cause of the migrants' plight to demonstrate its commitment to protecting human rights and respecting international law.

Fleeing violent conflicts or extreme poverty, thousands of migrants attempt the dangerous journey into Europe each year in smugglers' dinghies.

At least 792 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the UN. During the first five months of 2018, a total of 35,455 migrants reached European shores, with 11,792 of them arriving in Spain.

More than 1.8 million migrants have arrived in Europe since 2014, and Italy is now sheltering more than 170,000 asylum seekers, as well as an estimated 500,000 unregistered migrants.

"This is not something that Malta, Italy, Greece or Spain should be left alone to deal with. Countries not in the Mediterranean cannot try to use geography to exonerate themselves from responsibility," said Roberta Metsola, a leading MEP on migration.

So sensitive is the topic that the EU's Bulgarian presidency has spent months supervising closed-door lower-level talks to find a compromise - but the problem is eminently political, not technical.

Hungary and Poland have refused to take in refugees, and other nations barely contributed in the EU's earlier failed attempt to share the burden.

The problem has put strong domestic political pressure on Angela Merkel - who in 2015 refused to close Germany's door to migrants, many fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer now wants to turn away refugees registered elsewhere.

Austria and Denmark are championing the idea of setting up migrant camps outside western Europe, in the neighbouring Balkans.

Migration Policy Institute Europe director Elizabeth Collett said such plans were a sign of desperate times. "These ideas ... look good on paper, but it has been hard to identify a non-EU country willing to be a vassal state in this way, or design a system that would actually function," she said.

"What has changed now is the amount of political desperation involved in pursuing these ideas. Countries are willing to put more on the table - that is, pay third countries more - and are less concerned about how well they function."

EU leaders had ordered a solution be found by this month. With none in sight, Merkel and colleagues will be forced to grasp the migration nettle again at their June 28-29 summit.

"Europe can be the example to everyone on this issue but we have to see real political will to move away from fiery rhetoric to taking tough decisions," Metsola said. "The ball is in the leaders' court now. The world is watching."

©Associated Press

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