The joy of the passengers on board the Sea-Watch 3 was immense when it was announced that, after having spent weeks at sea off the coast of Malta, they only had to wait for two more hours before they could walk on EU territory.
On 22 December, the German NGO Sea-Watch rescued 32 migrants. After being denied docking rights in Malta, it headed south to attend to another emergency but was unable to find the missing migrant vessel. So the Sea-Watch 3 and its crew headed back north but were once again refused access.
Seventeen more migrants were rescued on 29 December by another ship, the Professor Albrecht Penck from the German organization Sea-Eye. They were also refused disembarkation as Malta argued that they were rescued beyond the country’s search-and-rescue zone.
Finally, an agreement was reached in the conflict over their admission. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told reporters on Wednesday that the passengers are allowed to land and will be distributed to eight different EU countries. The agreement also includes the distribution of 249 other migrants rescued by the Maltese Coast Guard over the past few weeks.
Not 'Europe's best time'
According to Politico, the migrants will be distributed as follows: Germany and France will take 60 each, Portugal 20, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Ireland six each and Romania five. Italy has yet to decide whether it will take in 12 or 15. According to Muscat, a further 44 migrants will be returned directly to Bangladesh, their country of origin. That leaves Malta with about 80.
The Commission in Brussels coordinated the negotiations between the different European leaders on Wednesday. The breakthrough came when Germany and France agreed to take 60 migrants each, prompting Malta to let the ships dock.
EU Interior Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos welcomed the agreement. He expressed his relief and praised Malta for allowing the ships to dock: "I am glad that our efforts to disembark the migrants on boats in Malta have brought results and that all those on board are being disembarked right now. I commend Malta for allowing this disembarkation and the Member States that showed active solidarity in accepting the migrants," he tweeted. However, he admitted that the events had not been "Europe’s best time."
On a visit to Poland on Wednesday, Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, met with Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party and de facto ruler of Poland. There, he responded to the agreement by saying that "giving in to the pressures and the threats of Europe and NGOs is a sign of weakness which the Italians do not deserve" and pledging to give Europe "new blood, new strength, new energy" and "counter the Franco-German axis with the Italo-Polish axis."
Conditions on board critical
Recently there had been dramatic reports about the conditions on board. People had to sleep in the infirmary and shared only one toilet. There were neither mattresses nor fresh clothes, and many migrants suffered from severe seasickness. Water supplies had to be rationed. Already traumatized by their journey – some had spent months in detention centers in Libya – the migrants faced increasing stress levels. Out of desperation, a man even jumped overboard hoping to swim to the Maltese coast. Some migrants temporarily refused food.
Sea-Watch accused European leaders of using the migrants as hostages, adding, "It is a testimony of state failure, politics should never be done at the expense of those in need."
Endless discussions on the Dublin Regulation
The EU has been arguing for years about the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that the member state through which an asylum seeker first enters EU territory is responsible for the asylum procedure. This naturally leaves countries on the EU’s external border, such as Italy, with the highest burden. So far, the EU has not been able to agree on a binding quota for the distribution of refugees and this will most likely not change before the May European elections.
Eastern European governments are rejecting the idea of a mandatory relocation of asylum seekers inside the EU. A temporary distribution mechanism, based on voluntary relocation, could serve as a "bridge" until a lasting agreement on the Dublin reform is achieved, Avramopoulos said. However, the suggestion of finding countries that volunteer to host centers fell on deaf ears when it was suggested during the EU Summit in June 2018.
We need a distribution mechanism and support for rescue operations
It is clear that we need a long-term strategy to prevent similar incidents from happening. We cannot allow having new negotiations with each new ship bringing refugees to a Maltese, Italian or Greek port. The EU needs a distribution mechanism involving as many member states as possible. Of the 28 EU member states, only nine participated in distributing the people on board the two rescue vessels; the other 19 just looked the other way.
What is scandalous is that the EU is ignoring its duty to rescue people in distress, a centuries-old maritime tradition, commonly regarded as unwritten international law. Worse still is that since the termination of the operation Mare Nostrum, which saved the lives of more than 100,000 people and led to the birth of search-and-rescue missions by private organization, saving lives at sea has become a criminal activity. Before the Sea-Watch 3 and Professor Albrecht Penck, the rescue ships Lifeline, Diciotti and the Aquarius had also been prevented from disembarking their passengers in the summer of 2018. Instead of smearing those who are saving lives, Europe should give them support.
Rescue work is about human rights and solidarity: it is a duty of the EU and its member states towards refugees, and it requires solidarity among EU member states in jointly developing and implementing political solutions. Only by respecting human dignity and international law will the EU live up to its own fundamental values.