A 253-feet long, 2,000-ton boat makes for an ungainly political football, especially when it is carrying some 629 desperate migrants and is staffed by a crew of angry humanitarian workers. But since Saturday, when the MV Aquarius, a search-and-rescue vessel operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and European NGO SOS Méditerranée, came to the aid of several dinghy-loads of imperiled migrants who had set off from the Libyan coast for Europe, the boat has become a symbol of the continent’s most intractable crisis. That wouldn’t be the plight of the migrants, which is indeed dire, but rather the inability of the European Union to tackle an issue that threatens to tear the bloc apart: what to do about the migrants and refugees who are willing to risk everything, even their lives, to reach European shores.
As the Aquarius approached Italian waters on June 10 to offload its human cargo, as it has done hundreds of times since commencing search and rescue operations two years ago, newly appointed Italian deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini decided that it was time to take a stand. Using the hashtag #closethedoors, Salvini tweeted that Italy would not be turned into a refugee camp. “Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying, this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO.”
For Salvini, it did not matter that the Italian Coast Guard, which had overseen the rescue operations, directed the Aquarius to Italian ports, nor that there were seven pregnant women, 123 unaccompanied minors and hundreds more in desperate need of food, warmth and shelter on board. Rather, he felt that it was time for Malta, which was closer to the Aquarius by just 8 nautical miles to take over. Malta refused, arguing that the boat fell under Italy’s jurisdiction, since its Coast Guard was running the rescue operation in the first place.