After a five-day European Union stand-off, Malta has allowed migrant rescue ship, Aquarius, to dock at its port in Valletta Harbour. The private NGO vessel carrying 141 migrants, including 70 children, safely ported on Tuesday, allowing those on board to reach the safety of land after their dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea. The migrants were initially rescued by the Aquarius the following Friday but were refused entry into Italy, leaving the boat stranded for days as EU nations argued over the fate of those on board.
In a press release, the government stated that Malta, along with five other EU nations, including France and Spain, came to an agreement on sharing the relocation of the migrants, in a “responsibility sharing exercise.” French President, Emmanuel Macron, was among leaders who praised Malta’s decision, tweeting on Tuesday that the EU agreement was “Concrete European cooperation.” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez tweeted the same day that “Solidarity and cooperation between us is the way for the European Union to face global challenges such as migration.” While the actions of Malta should be applauded, the United Nations Refugee Agency has stressed the need for the EU to make concrete arrangements on where migrant rescue ships can dock to avoid stand-offs in the future. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated that such stand-offs are “wrong, dangerous and immoral.”
Overall, Malta’s decision to dock the Aquarius should be commended, as should the sharing of responsibility of the migrants on-board. The ability of Malta, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain to collaborate and make a unified decision regarding the stand-off signifies that a common migration policy can be achieved. This decision is a first step towards stronger migration policies and allowed the rights and well-being of the migrants on-board to be protected. However, as the United Nations Refugee Agency argues, migrant boat stand-offs should not be occurring, period. The Aquarius’s inability to port for days accentuates flaws in EU migration policies, where circumstances regarding migrant boats are treated on an ad-hoc basis. This leaves migrants vulnerable and in limbo, and fails to create a sustainable and unified policy which will protect all migrants’ right to seek asylum.
A former fishing vessel, the Aquarius is an NGO run boat, shared between Doctors without Borders and SOS Mediterranean. Running since 2016, Reuters reports that it has already saved over 3,000 migrants who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The boat is, therefore, crucial to saving lives at sea while respecting the rights of migrants to seek asylum from conflict zones including Libya. Al Jazeera reports that this is not the first time EU countries have refused to dock the Aquarius, with a similar stand-off regarding 629 migrants occurring in June. Both EU stand-offs reflect the poor immigration policies of the EU, as well as key European nations. For example, as the closest EU country to Libya, Italy plays a crucial role in determining the fate of the NGO boat. However, Italy’s current anti-immigrant stance under the leadership of Matteo Salvini has complicated the fate of migrants on-board. As Italy continues to refuse to dock the Aquarius, the need for other nations to take responsibility is more than ever.
While there was a positive outcome for the Aquarius and its passengers, the future of migrants taking the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea remains uncertain. Malta’s decision to dock the Aquarius and the choice of certain EU nations to share responsibility suggests that a common and unified migration policy can be achieved. Human lives are depending on it.
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