5 European states reach deal on fate of 58 migrants rescued off Libyan coast
PARIS — The government of Malta announced Tuesday that it would allow the 58 migrants aboard the Aquarius 2 — a private migrant rescue ship — to temporarily disembark on the shores of the island nation, after which point they would be distributed among France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Malta.
The decision ended a days-long standoff among European states over shouldering responsibility for the latest group of migrants rescued from the waters off the Libyan coast. The news came in the wake of French President Emmanuel Macron’s Tuesday address to the United Nations in New York, which focused on the need for multilateralism, as well as French officials’ refusal to allow the ship to dock in France.
“Malta and France again step up to solve the migrant impasse,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced on Twitter late Tuesday afternoon. “With Emmanuel Macron and other leaders we want to show (a) multilateral approach [is] possible.”
“Once again, a European solution has been found, humane and effective,” French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said in a statement. “It respects two essential principles of responsibility and solidarity: landing in a nearby safe harbor and the care of the people on board.”
Spain will take 15 of the 58 passengers, according to a Spanish official quoted by the Associated Press. Portugal will take 10, and France will take 18, according to Philippe’s statement. Germany will take 15.
The ship — managed jointly by the aid organizations SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders — had been the subject of a fierce debate among European governments for days. The United Nations has declared Libya an unsafe destination for migrants. As recently as November 2017, video footage showed young sub-Saharan migrants being sold in apparent Libyan slave auctions. Still, European Union policy prefers that the Libyan coast guard return migrants to North Africa, rather than having aid groups bring migrants to European shores.
For months, the Aquarius has found itself at the center of Europe’s struggle to manage the political fallout of a historic migrant influx in 2015, even as the numbers of arrivals have fallen to pre-2015 levels.
The Aquarius made international headlines in June when Italy’s new populist government refused to allow it to dock in Sicily. Macron initially accused his Italian counterparts of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for refusing to admit the Aquarius, but he soon came under fire for doing the same. The ship was stranded off the coast of Malta at the time, with 629 migrants aboard. It then had to sail an additional three days to the port of Valencia in eastern Spain.
The migration issue has proved to be a major challenge to the tolerant, global image that Macron has sought to cultivate in a European climate marked by the rise of nationalism.
Macron is typically seen as the principal opponent to Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, both of whom have embraced hard-line anti-migrant policies.
“He is at the head of the political forces supporting immigration,” Orban said in August, speaking with Salvini in Milan. “On the other hand, we want to stop illegal immigration.”
But Macron’s critics point out that his administration has pursued an agenda that has likewise made life more difficult for migrants in France. In August, the French parliament signed into law Macron’s controversial asylum bill, which favors political asylum seekers over economic migrants and eases the process for expelling those who do not qualify.
“Despite Macron presenting himself as a welcoming, tolerant figure on the European stage, as the inverse of Orban and Salvini, in fact, he’s the same thing, at least in terms of the rescue operations,” said Michaël Neuman, director of the research division of Doctors Without Borders.
Others see a more calculated strategy designed to stave off a potentially bigger migrant influx in the future, even if the latest incident involved just 58 people.
“This stopped being about the actual numbers of people a long time ago,” said Elizabeth Collett, director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe. “It’s about the fear of whether saying yes once means you’ll have to say yes in the future. That’s what this conversation has become about between states.”
“Macron doesn’t want to do anything — or not do anything — which would lock him and France into a posture that would be extraordinarily difficult to live with two or three or four years down the pike,” said François Heisbourg, a former French presidential adviser on national security and a Paris-based political analyst.
Rescue ships run by aid groups have been withdrawing from the Mediterranean under political pressure. Aquarius is one of the last, and it is unclear whether it will be able to continue its missions. The ship is registered with the Panamanian government, and Panama announced Saturday that it would begin withdrawing that registration. Speaking to France’s Le Monde newspaper, Francis Vallat, the head of SOS Mediterranee France, decried what he called a “political” operation of Italian threats against Panama.
Although the numbers of migrants reaching Europe have fallen, the death rates have not. About 1,600 migrants died in the Mediterranean in the first seven months of 2018, according to U.N. data releasedthis month.
The figure represents the highest death rate since the peak of Europe’s migrant influx in 2015. The United Nations concluded that a “major factor” is the decreased rescue capacity off the Libyan coast.