The Aquarius odyssey: do migrants have a 'vocation' to die?


The odyssey of the migrant rescue ship Aquarius offers a new example of the violence of Europe-wide immigration policies, and not only those of the far-right in power in Italy, writes  Mediapart co-editor Carine Fouteau. For the migrants onboard the Aquarius, who will eventually arrive in a state of exhaustion in Spain, the ship’s long and deviated route for a safe haven is yet further confirmation that they and others like them are simply considered as a burden by European countries – if, that is, they manage to arrive alive on the continent’s shores.  

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On board the Aquarius, now heading to Spain, the odyssey continues. The crew, members of SOS Méditerranée, the Franco-German NGO which charters the boat for its operations to rescue migrants attempting the treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, detailed on their Twitter account that the migrants they are carrying onboard are suffering from exhaustion and shock, while a number are also ill.

Following the refusal by Italy and Malta to allow the migrants to disembark in either country, and in the absence of any counter proposition by France, the offer by Spain to accept the passengers has forced the vessel to follow the long route west across the Mediterranean to the port of Valencia.

Mirroring the inaction of European countries, the conditions in the rough seas, with waves like walls, were so difficult to navigate that the ordeal of those aboard has been further prolonged by the necessity for the Aquarius to deviate its route. After running north along the eastern coast of Sardinia, the ship has now passed through the channel between the Italian island and Corsica, according to the Marine Traffic website on which the Aquarius can be tracked in real time, and on Friday was on a direct route for Valencia, 378 nautical miles (about 700 kilometres) away.

The position and future route of the Aquarius on Friday morning, 378 nautical miles (about 700 kilometres) from Valencia. The position and future route of the Aquarius on Friday morning, 378 nautical miles (about 700 kilometres) from Valencia.
There was an air of cynicism on Thursday when the Italian coast guard passed supplies to the boat, made up of nuts, dried bananas, dried soup –  and children’s toys. “It rained this morning, making deck and stairs dangerously slippery,” said Aloys Vimard, project coordinator aboard the Aquarius for international medical intervention NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders), in a message posted on Twitter on Thursday. “Most people are inside lying on the floor including pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers, babies, burns patients, people who almost drowned."

After experiencing hellish conditions in Libya, a country in the hands of mafia-like gangs from which no migrant who crosses it emerges unscathed, the passengers of the Aquarius will arrive in Europe on their knees, if not quite at death’s door.

Meanwhile, another tragedy in the Mediterranean took place earlier this week, while the Aquarius was between Sicily and Malta. A group of about 40 migrants were rescued from a flimsy dinghy in international waters off the coast of Libya by a US navy transport ship, the USNS Trenton, after the group had already seen some of their companions drown. The Trenton was still waiting on Friday for permission from the Italian authorities to disembark the survivors in Sicily. They have experienced tragedy and trauma, but once again Europe turns its back. 

The US Navy Sixth Fleet, to which the Trenton belongs, announced that about a dozen corpses had been seen in the waters at the site of the rescue. “During the operation, the Trenton crew initially observed approximately 12 bodies in the water that appeared to be unresponsive,” read a US navy statement. “The crew prioritized in recovering those who needed immediate help.” The number of dead was in all probability higher still given that there are rarely less than 100 people on the dinghies that attempt the crossings.

It might be imagined that dramatic events of the sort prompt a wave of emotion around the world, that street demonstrations erupt in outrage that human beings could be treated in such a manner. But no. For years migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, which has become a watery graveyard for tens of thousands of exiled people seeking a better life elsewhere, and a sort of indifference has set in. What kind of society have we become when we fail to rise up en masse to force our democratically elected governments to open the ports to people who are between life and death?    

It could be thought that the European Union institutions might react by asking member states to sit down together to organise collective rescue operations. But no. The survivors have understood that they are not welcome on this continent which, at one time, was engaged in a war against fascism, that no country wants them, and that they are considered to be a burden to be shared if ever, despite it all, they succeed in arriving alive on our shores.     

On Friday French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for talks over lunch in Paris, presenting a scene of reconciliation after several days acting out their dispute sparked by Macron’s disapproval of Italy’s refusal to allow the passengers of the Aquarius to disembark. Will they raise their glasses for a toast in honour of the migrants they failed to save?

Italy and its far-right members of government are not the only ones to blame in this episode, they have simply put in action the programme chosen by European leaders. It should be remembered how Italy was criticised when in October 2013 it launched operation Mare Nostrum dedicated to saving migrants in the Mediterranean. As also it should be remembered how European governments, those of France and Germany at the fore, refused to review the Dublin accords that decided that those EU countries where migrants first arrive on, the continent are responsible for managing asylum demands, leaving Italy and Greece, for geographical reasons, on the frontline of the migrant influx.     

But for all that one should nevertheless not conclude that Italy, even before the recent arrival of the far-right in power, has otherwise acted with honour. It was a centre-left Italian government which distinguished itself in the autumn of 2017 by signing a secret agreement with Libyan people smugglers to prevent migrants from leaving the North African country, placing them under a sort of mass house arrest in a country where their detention, torture and kidnapping is the norm. It was a strategy that worked, given how the numbers of those crossing from Libya have drastically fallen since, in the same way as the numbers of those heading to Greece across the Aegean Sea from Turkey have all but stopped since the agreement in the spring of 2016 between the EU and Ankara.

The numbers of migrants arriving by sea in Italy between 2014 and 2018 (in the period January-April). © OIM The numbers of migrants arriving by sea in Italy between 2014 and 2018 (in the period January-April). © OIM

No European country can boast about its treatment of migrants. The Italian far-right is not wrong in highlighting the repressive actions of French police at Menton, on the Riviera border with Italy, or, in the north, at the Channel port of Calais. Spain, despite its face-saving this week, previously, and for years, left migrants to die, and notably those hoping to breach the barbed-wire defences of Ceuta and Melilla, its enclaves in North Africa.

For at least two decades Europe has walled itself in. By systematically tightening policies towards migration, EU member states have reduced to almost none the possibilities for migrants to travel legally. To paraphrase former socialist French prime minister Manuel Valls, who once said Roma migrants had a “vocation” to return to Romania, it could be considered that the subtext of European government policies is that migrants have a vocation to die. Or to stay in Libya, which amounts to much the same thing. To quote Manuel Valls is no trivial matter, because the French Left have him to thank for introducing the poison that is the notion of “identity” (a concept espoused by Identitarians), into its supposedly progressist camp.

The moral of this story is that while the Italian ruling coalition of the Five Star Movement and far-right League found itself blocked when it proposed making an opponent of the euro its economy minister, such as it was that the EU leadership feared it would place in question Brussels’ neoliberal foundation, the same coalition received endorsement for its decision to appoint Matteo Salvini, leader of the League (and a friend of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen), as interior minister, in charge of immigration policy.

It will soon be apparent if European heads of government, who are due to gather in Brussels for a European Council meeting on June 28th and 29th, will pull off the achievement of silencing their differences over economic policies to the cost of the migrants.



  • The French version of this article can be found here.


English version by Graham Tearse



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