Stranded Migrant Ship, MV Aquarius, Causes Spat Between Italy and France
On Wednesday, the new Italian populist government, noted for its anti-immigration stance, defended its decision not to open its port to a refugee rescue boat carrying around 600 migrants, despite criticism from the European Union and French President Emmanuel Macron.
The boat, the MV Aquarius, had gone on several rescue missions on Saturday to recover as many as 629 refugees, including 11 children and seven pregnant women from 26 African nations. After the rescue operations, the boat was 35 miles offshore of Italy and 27 miles from Malta.
While Malta refused to accept the boat, Italy’s refusal to let the boat dock elicited strong criticism from the European Union (E.U.) and other Mediterranean nations and left the boat stranded in the Mediterranean Sea until Spain stepped in.
“We will not change (our position) on ships belonging to non-governmental organizations,” Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is the head of the anti-immigrant League party in Italy, stated in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera.
Spain’s government finally said it would allow the Aquarius to dock at Valencia’s port but it requires a three-plus day journey for a boat already overcrowded and short on supplies.
The Impact of Illegal Immigrants on Italy
According to the International Migration Organization (IOM), 120,000 immigrants arrived in Italy by sea in 2017. In that year, 2,832 people died from drowning as they en route to Italy.
The arrival of illegal immigrants has sparked controversy throughout the country. Italian journalist Francesca Totolo told Sputnik that there are currently 600,000 illegal immigrants who have not applied for asylum. Despite an expulsion order by the government, those immigrants are still in the country. She claimed, in order for the immigrants to survive, they have to work in an organized crime group or a black market which has increased Italy’s crime rate.
Regardless of the cause, Italians have started opposing immigration as evidenced by the victory of the anti-immigrant party in Italy’s election last March. “80 percent of Italian citizens have asked the new government under Giuseppe Conte, to close the Sicilian ports to stop illegal immigration,” claimed Totolo.
France’s and Italy War of Words
French President Emmanuel Macron accused Italy of being irresponsible for refusing the stranded migrant ships. According to reports, during a weekly Cabinet meeting Macron accused Italy of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for not providing safe harbor to a ship in distress.
“In cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond,” French spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said.
“There is a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government’s behavior with regards to this dramatic humanitarian situation,” Griveaux quoted Macron as saying.
Italy hit back by saying that France had accepted only a small portion of the 9,816 migrants France was supposed to welcome under a 2015 E.U. plan to relieve the refugee burden placed on Italy and Greece.
“So I ask President Macron to pass from words to action and tomorrow morning welcome the 9,000 France promised to welcome as a sign of concrete generosity and not just words,” Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said in a speech before Italian Parliament.
Salvini asserted that Italy spends more on each asylum seeker than France, citing data that showed that Italy spends 35 euros on each asylum seeker, while France spends only 25.
France was to have sheltered a total of 19,714 migrants from Italy and Greece; in all, it has accepted 4,677. Only a third of the 98,255 migrants across the E.U. that were intended to be relocated according to the 2015 E.U. plan have been.
In response to France’s criticism, Italy summoned the French ambassador for a meeting, canceled a planned meeting between the two country’s finance ministers and warned that diplomatic relations had worsened between Italy and France.
Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, stated that Italy had no desire to receive “hypocritical lessons” from someone (France) who “in terms of immigration had always preferred to turn their head to the other side.”
France’s foreign ministry attempted to temper the situation by acknowledging the immigration burden on Italy and stated that the two countries would discuss immigration solutions when Italian and French leaders meet on Friday. Italian news reports have stated that the meeting is now tentative given the current tension, but the Italian government has confirmed neither way.
“We are fully aware of the burden that the migration pressure is placing on Italy and the efforts that this country is making,” the French ministry’s spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said in a daily briefing on Wednesday. “We are committed to the dialogue and cooperation we have on these topics with Rome,” von der Muhll added.
The latest report from the MV Aquarius is that it is currently en route to Spain with an escort from two Italian naval ships and has been receiving various supply drop-offs during the voyage.
Oranges, cereal bars and bread – this is what the #Aquarius has just received from the Italian coastguard as a food resupply. It’s a welcome delivery but the #MSF medical team are still concerned about nutritional needs being met over the 3 day journey. pic.twitter.com/TeYDOVjbxU
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) June 13, 2018