5 European states reach deal on fate of 58 migrants rescued off Libyan coast
The Aquarius rescue vessel, chartered by the French NGO SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, has found itself at the center of Europeâs struggle to manage the political fallout of an historic migrant influx. (Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images) September 25 at 5:24 PM
PARIS â" The government of Malta announced Tuesday that it would allow the 58 migrants aboard the Aquarius 2 â" a private migrant rescue ship â" 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 o f migrants rescued from the waters off the Libyan coast. The news came in the wake of French President Emmanuel Macronâs address Tuesday at the United Nations in New York, which focused on the need for multilateralism, as well as French officialsâ refusal to allow the ship to dock in France.
âMalta and France again step up to solve the migrant impasse,â Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced on Twitter late Tuesday afternoon. âWith Emmanuel Macron and other leaders we want to show [a] multilateral approach [is] possible.â
âOnce again, a European solution has been found, humane and effective,â French Prime Minister Ãdouard Philippe said in a statement. âIt respects two essential principles of responsibility and solidarity: landing in a nearby safe harbor and the care of the people on board.â
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 t ake 18, according to Philippeâs statement. Germany will take 15.
The ship â" managed jointly by the aid organizations SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders â" 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 Europeâs 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 Italyâs new populist government refused to allow it to dock in Sicily. Macron initially a ccused his Italian counterparts of âcynicism and irresponsibilityâ 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 Hungaryâs Viktor Orban and Italyâs Matteo Salvini, both of whom have embraced hard-line anti-migrant policies.
âHe is at the head of the political forces supporting immigration,â Orban said in August, speaking with Salvini in Milan. âOn the other hand, we want to stop illegal immigration.â
Asylum seekers who have been rescued by the Aquarius rescue ship and another ship in the Mediterranean Sea line up upon their arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy-en-France, north of Paris, on Aug. 30. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)
But Macronâs critics point out that his administration has pursued an agenda that has likewise made life more difficult for migrants in France. In August, Parliament signed into law Macronâs controversial asylum bill, which favors political asylum seekers over economic migrants and eases the process for expelling those who do not qualify.
âDespite Macron presenting himself as a welcoming, tolerant figure on the European stage, as the inverse of Orban and Salvini, in fact, heâs the same thing, at least in terms of the rescue operations,â said MichaÃ«l Neuman, director of the research division of Doctors Without Borders.
Others see a more calculated strategy designed to stave off a poten tially bigger migrant influx in the future, even if the latest incident involved just 58 people.
âThis stopped being about the actual numbers of people a long time ago,â said Elizabeth Collett, director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe. âItâs about the fear of whether saying yes once means you'll have to say yes in the future. Thatâs what this conversation has become about between states.â
âMacron doesnât want to do anything â" or not do anything â" 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,â said FranÃ§ois 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 Franceâs Le Monde newspaper, Francis Vallat, the head of SOS Mediterranee France, decried what he called a âpoliticalâ 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 released this month.
The figure represents the highest death rate since the peak of Europeâs migrant influx in 2015. The United Nations concluded that a âmajor factorâ is the decreased rescue capacity off the Libyan coast.
The retreat of rescue ships from the Mediterranean is a sign of changing odds for migrants
Fewer migrants are making it to Europe. Hereâs why.
Todayâs coverage from Post correspondents around the world
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