Deputy prime minister callously celebrates after Italy strands 600 refugees at sea

A rescue boat with over 600 migrants aboard awaits a formal permission to move.

Humanitarian workers speak to some of the 629 migrants and asylum seekers current on board the Aquarius rescue boat stuck in the waters between Malta and Italy. CREDIT: Karpov/SOS Mediterranee/via MSF Twitter feed.
Humanitarian workers speak to some of the 629 migrants and asylum seekers current on board the Aquarius rescue boat stuck in the waters between Malta and Italy. CREDIT: Karpov/SOS Mediterranee/via MSF Twitter feed.

Having spent the weekend at sea, the roughly 600 migrants and asylum seekers floating between Malta and southern Italy on a rescue boat have been accepted by Spain, after being turned away by Italy.

But the Aquarius rescue boat has not yet docked in Spain, and currently remains at sea, where the situation, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the two humanitarian groups operating the ship, is dire:

ThinkProgress contacted Amnesty International to see if the people on the boat will be allowed to disembark and be processed once at Valencia, but, according to Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International’s Italy Researcher, that is not yet clear.


In fact, the boat is still waiting for the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center to be formally notified of the port of disembarkation assigned to it.

This delay only further prolongs the hellish journey for the 629 migrants, among them, 134 children (including 123 unaccompanied minors) and seven pregnant women.

On Monday, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez instructed the port of Valencia to allow entry to those Italy would not accept.

“It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations,” said a statement released by Sanchez’s office.

Valencia is around 800 miles away from the ship’s current position, or around 3 days away, MSF noted in a tweet.

Over the weekend, authorities in Malta (which sent biscuits and noodles to the ship on Monday) said the Italians were responsible for the migrants and asylum seekers, as it was the Italian coastguard that had overseen the rescue operation.

Italy, however, under the control of a brand new, far-right coalition that took power on an anti-immigration platform, rejected allowing the rescue boat to even dock there.


Matteo Salvini, who serves as both deputy prime minister as well as interior minister, tweeted that he saw Spain’s acceptance of the migrants as a “victory,” and added that keeping migrants out of Italy was the new government’s “First goal achieved!”

That Salvini sees this as a victory is troubling to De Pieri.

“Salvini will see this as a victory, but what we need is a predicable system,” she said, for the NGOs to be able to reach people and bring them to safety.

“What we need is a proper sharing of responsibility by all states involved,” she said, adding that states also need to see that the “emergency activity” involved in saving lives at sea is separate from processing new arrivals.

“It is not acceptable that states negotiate while people are still in the process of being rescued,” she said.

The weekend’s rescue operation saw the Aquarius — a 550-person-capacity ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (known by French acronym MSF) and the SOS Méditerranée — rescue hundreds of people from six boats. Some of those rescued have chemical burns or are suffering from hypothermia.


The UN refugee agency had said earlier in the day that it was running out of provisions to look after Malta and Italy refused to help.

MSF tweeted on Sunday that the Italian coast guard left the Aquarius between Italy and Malta, instructing it to “hold its position.”

MSF has used very measured language to describe the unfolding crisis at sea, calling the refusal of entry by Malta and Italy as a “diplomatic standoff” in its tweet. That is certainly not how Salvini and the League party he leads view migration. He has vowed to not only stop irregular migration, but to deport roughly 500,000 of what he describes as “illegal” migrants.

There’s neither diplomatic language nor talk of treaties in his messaging.

“All states have a duty under international law to allow people to request asylum at the border,” said De Pieri. And that’s the loophole Italy has created for itself; its coast guard effectively tells the Aquarius to hold its position away from the border, where legally, those on board cannot seek asylum.

This is essentially taking a page out of Australia’s playbook, which has authorities — sometimes with the help of paid criminal syndicates — turning boats away from Australian shores or detaining asylum seekers in prison-like camps on island nations such as Manus and Nauru, for years.

Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International U.S., said that Italy and Malta are not meeting their obligation under international law.

“What we see is what we call an externalization of the international protection system of asylum … an undermining of international obligations to offer asylum in a meaningful way, and that is troubling because we see it growing again and again and again,” Bell said.

She added that the United States, under the Trump administration, “is effectively dismantling our refugee admissions program and trying to detour people from their right to seek asylum at our borders.”

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has implemented a Muslim ban, preventing refugees (and visitors) from a number of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States while also instituting a major border crackdown, which now formally includes separating children from their parents when they enter the country.

Over the weekend, we learned about a Honduran man who, having had his six-year-old child ripped from his arms by U.S. law enforcement, committed suicide while in custody.

An Eritrean man also killed himself en route to being deported to his country after he was denied asylum in the United States. He took his life while in the holding area in Cairo International Airport, the Associated Press reported. The man, who had entered the United States from the southern border, had been detained for 16 months and listed “fear of returning to his country” as his reason for seeking refugee status.

“These are unnecessary policies, these are cruel policies, these are harming people who are seeking safety … and also, in the case of the U.S., they have a right to seek asylum. It’s not just international law, it’s U.S. law,” said Bell.