The European politicking defining the refugee crisis

While the numbers of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean have continued to fall since their peak in 2015, European leaders appear more uncertain or unwilling to deal with the issue than ever. Competing domestic demands and diplomatic pressures continue to define the fates of people desperate enough to attempt the crossing.

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The Aquarius rescue ship, operated by SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières was left in limbo for the second time this year on August 11 when the Italian and Maltese governments denied it permission to dock and unload 141 rescued migrants.

The British territory of Gibraltar revoked the Aqurius’s registration, in a bid to disavow any obligation to offer shelter to a ship flying under its flag and the ship was left in limbo until the Spanish government announced an agreement had been struck to share the ship’s passengers between six countries.

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It was the second time the Aquarius, one of the few ships still running search and rescue missions, had been left adrift with rescued people on board, since early June.

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  • The governing coalition, featuring the populist Five Star Movement, assumed office on June 1, promising to stop accepting refugees and migrants.
  • On June 10, it refused port entry to the Aquarius, which was holding 630 rescued migrants.
  • When Italy, along with Malta, again refused the Aquarius permission to dock on August 11, Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli called on Britain to offer refuge as the ship was originally flying under the flag of Gibraltar.


  • Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón, leader of Spain’s Socialist Workers party, took office as Prime Minister on June 2. In a statement on June 11, Sanchez said international law obliged his government to offer a safe harbor to those on board the Aquarius, and avoid a humanitarian disaster.
  • On August 14, Sánchez wrote on Twitter that his government had orchestrated a deal with six other countries to offer refuge to the 141 migrants on board the Aquarius, with his country taking the largest share of 60 passengers.

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The EU

  • Since June 2016, the EU has been supporting the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrants and refugees and return them to North Africa where they are offered assistance to return.
  • EU leaders met at a summit in Brussels at the end of June and agreed in principle to build “disembarkation platforms.”
  • European Council President Donald Tusk said: “We have sent a clear message to all vessels, including those of NGOs, operating in the Mediterranean, that they must respect the law and must not obstruct the operation of the Libyan Coast Guard.”

Rescue groups

  • The main Mediterranean rescue groups, including MSF and SOS Méditerranée, have consistently argued that the EU’s approach has “criminalized” rescue efforts.
  • Many aid workers say conditions in Libya, including the risk of indefinite detention and trafficking, make it too dangerous a place to return migrants.
  • SOS Méditerranée said Gibraltar’s move to suspend the ship’s registration shows “a deliberate will to stop the rescue activity of the Aquarius, one of the last civil and humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean.”


  • Data collected by the International Organization for Migration showed that more people died crossing the Mediterranean in the five weeks after the Aquarius was first stranded than in the previous five months of 2018 combined.

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