On Thursday, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Luxembourg, and Romania agreed to take in 356 African refugees aboard the Ocean Viking, a Norwegian-flagged rescue ship that has been stranded near Malta for two weeks. The EU Migration Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, negotiated the deal between Malta and the six other EU countries to put an end to the two-week standoff between the Ocean Viking and EU leaders. As part of the compromise, Malta agreed to use its navy to transfer people to the island, but they will not be allowing anyone to stay in the country.
The agreement came after the Ocean Viking had been stranded for 13 days outside Malta because its requests for port access on August 9th and August 12th went unanswered by the governments of Italy and Malta. According to a BBC report, Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, has called the rescue ships taxis for people-smugglers and has said that Italy is at risk of becoming “Europe’s refugee camp.” In a recent tweet, Salvini made his view on the issue clear, writing, “As promised, we did not give the 356 migrants on the Ocean Viking permission to disembark in Italy. The safety of Italians comes first!”
The Ocean Viking, run by the charities Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée, was carrying 356 migrants from Sudan, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Senegal. According to MSF, almost 100 of those on board were minors, 90 of which were unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. There were also three children under the age of five. Most of the people on board had been rescued by the Ocean Viking off the Libyan coast. According to the ship’s medical team, many were suffering from severe dehydration and malnutrition. Those on the ship have told stories of fleeing Libya to escape abuse, arbitrary detention, human trafficking, and torture. Days before the agreement was reached, Frédéric Penar, SOS Méditerranée’s director of operations, announced that the prolonged standoff took an emotional and physical toll on those onboard and that supplies were running so low that the crew had to ration showers to conserve water.
After the agreement was announced, Jay Berger, MSF’s project coordinator onboard the Ocean Viking, responded by saying, “We are relieved this long ordeal for the 356 people we have onboard is finally over. Was it necessary to impose two weeks of excruciating wait for rescued people to be disembarked?” He also explained that “A rescue ship is like an ambulance. People should be transported but not living on it.” Frédéric Penar added, “The 14-day standoff of the Viking Ocean was shocking.”
Unfortunately, the Viking Ocean’s story is not unique. Just days before the Viking Ocean arrived in the Mediterranean, 100 migrants aboard the Open Arms ship were stranded off the coast of Italy for almost three weeks until a prosecutor ordered Italy to bring them ashore. Thousands of migrants make the dangerous journey to the Mediterranean from Libya each year. According to a Reuters report, 600 people have already died this year trying to make the crossing. This is largely because Libya is a hub for people attempting to flee their home countries. However, once they reach Libya, migrants are given little say on when they will embark on their journeys, and they are often sent off in unseaworthy boats with untrained crew members.
Despite the prevalence of migrant rescue ships arriving in European waters, there is no uniform system in place to protect and house arriving refugees. Currently, all arriving rescue ships are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and they are usually stranded for weeks before being allowed to disembark. The fate of the migrants onboard these ships are left in the hands of European leaders, many of whom have strong nationalist and anti-immigrant views.
Going forward, an EU system must be put in place to quickly and systematically relocate and house arriving immigrants to ensure more lives are not lost in the Mediterranean. This predictability will allow arriving rescue ships to know exactly how long they will be at sea so that they can carry adequate resources. It would also reduce some of the pressure on countries in the Mediterranean, like Italy and Malta, by involving a larger number of countries. Whatever the solution, it is clear that the current system of leaving ships stranded until an emergency arises is no longer sustainable or humane.
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