Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini, has announced the closure of ports to a migrant rescue ship. According to BBC News The Aquarius, operated by the German charity SOS Méditerranée, is carrying 629 refugees who were rescued off the Libyan coast. Among them are ‘123 unaccompanied minors,’ ‘11 younger children’ and ‘seven pregnant women.’ The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea states that the country closest to where a ship is in distress is responsible for operations and receiving the ship. In this instance, the closest states are Malta and Italy. BBC News has reported that whilst Salvini has stated that Malta should accept the Aquarius, the Maltese government has declared that it is ‘neither the coordinating nor the competent authority.’ As time progresses, it is crucial that the issue is solved, as current political disagreements and a subsequent lack of action have a profound effect upon the health and well-being of those on board.
In response to the issue, Vincent Cochetel of the UNHCR said that there was an ‘urgent humanitarian imperative.’ In turn, ‘broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between stated should be looked at later.’ Such a perspective is especially fitting in the wake of decreasing provisions and the fragile mental and physical states of refugees. Additionally, such a solution would necessitate cooperation and collaboration; factors essential to providing the refugees with comfort and safety.
Currently, such cooperation has been notably absent. Rather, Italian and Maltese politicians have been engaged in debate concerning responsibilities, with no action. ABC News reports that Salvini has stated that ‘From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration.’ Additionally, Salvini identified that ‘Malta takes nobody,’ echoing Italy’s suggestion for Malta receiving the Aquarius. However, such a statement is flawed considering each state’s refugee intakes. According to 2016 statistics from the UNHCR, whilst Malta takes in a fraction of the number of refugees Italy accepts, the proportion of this intake to its population and its GDP exceeds Italy’s. Although this does not negate Malta’s responsibility to contribute to solutions, it highlights the capacity for Italy, and indeed neighbouring states, to accept more refugees.
Notably, mayors of southern Italy, including Palermo, Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria, have stated that they are willing to open their ports to allow the Aquarius to dock. However, according to the Guardian, such promises will have minimal practical effect, as they will require the support of the Italian coastguard. Moreover, it is fundamental that the Italian state itself is supportive of the acceptance so as to minimize further political tensions that may perpetuate harm for the refugees.
Fundamentally, Italy’s rejection of the Aquarius evokes renewed consideration of international law and the treatment of refugees. As per Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human beings are entitled to ‘seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ As a doctrine that serves as a foundation of many contemporary laws and policies, it is somewhat paradoxical that states and societies can selectively employ its outlined rights. Whilst the political consequences of Italy’s decision are potentially numerous, it is essential that attention is directed towards the refugees who which such a decision primarily affects.
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