France rejects a migrant rescue ship as tensions mount in the Mediterranean
Sophie Beau, SOS Mediterranee chief executive, speaks to Agence France-Presse in front of the Aquarius rescue ship in the port of Marseille on Sept. 6, 2018. (CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images) September 25 at 7:52 AM
PARIS â" The French government reiterated Tuesday that the Aquarius 2 â" a private migrant rescue ship carrying 58 people â" would not be permitted to dock in Marseille and should seek instead âthe closest and safest port.â The news came ahead of President Emmanuel Macron's Tuesday address to the United Nations in New York.
The ship â" managed jointly by two aid organizations â" is currently located off the Libyan coast, and the United Nations has already de clared Libya to be an unsafe destination for migrants. As recently as November 2017, video footage emerged that showed young sub-Saharan migrants being sold in apparent Libyan slave auctions.
âFor the moment, France says no,â French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told Franceâs BFM Television network on Tuesday. Le Maireâs comments were the latest to emphasize that France has no obligation either to allow the ship to reach the southern French port of Marseille or to admit the 58 migrants aboard.
âHumanity is to land the ship in the closest and safest port,â French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux announced late Monday via Twitter. âIt is through cooperation with our European partners that we will provide a solution.â
For months, the Aquarius has found itself at the center of Europeâs ongoing struggle to manage the political tensions that followed a historic migrant influx in 2015, even as the numbers of arrivals have fallen sharply to pre -2015 levels.
It was not the first time the French government has refused to allow the rescue mission to land in France.
Asylum seekers who have been rescued by the Aquarius rescue ship and another ship in the Mediterranean sea queue upon their arrival at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, in Roissy-en-France, north of Paris, on Aug.30, 2018. (ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Run by aid groups SOS MÃ©diterranÃ©e and Doctors Without Borders, the Aquarius made international headlines in July when the Italyâs right-wing, populist government refused to allow it to dock in Italy. 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.
Franceâs Mediterranean coastline would have been closer, but the French governm ent did not permit the ship to dock. Macron initially criticized his Italian counterparts for âcynicism and irresponsibilityâ in refusing to admit the Aquarius, but he soon came under fire for doing the same.
The migration issue has proven 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
But Macronâs critics point out that his administration has actually pursued an agenda that has likewise made life more difficult for migrants in France. In August, for instance, the French parliament signed into law Macronâ s 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 potentially bigger migrant influx in the future, even if there are only 58 people concerned in this latest incident.
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. âIt'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.â
âT herefore, Macron 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.
In any case, it is unclear whether the Aquarius 2 will be able to continue its Mediterranean rescue missions. The ship is registered with the Panamanian government, and Panama announced Saturday that it would begin the process of withdrawing that registration. Speaking to Franceâs Le Monde newspaper, Francis Vallat, the head of SOS MÃ©diterranÃ©e France, decried what he called a âpoliticalâ operation of Italian threats against Panama.
If the numbers of incoming migrant arrivals into Europe have fallen, the death rates have not. Around 1,600 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in the first seven months of 2018, according to U. N. data released earlier this month.
The figure represents the highest death rate since the peak of Europeâs migrant influx in 2015, and the U.N. report concluded that a âmajor factorâ behind the increased death rate is the decreased rescue capacity off the Libyan coast, where the Libyan coast guard â" and not private aid groups â" leads the charge.
The Aquarius 2âs operation was one of the last rescue missions in the area.
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