For 30 long hours, they were stranded on the high seas, with the governments of Italy and Malta each trying to saddle the other with the responsibility to allow the docking of the ship Aquarius, owned by the NGO Sos Méditerranée, with 629 migrants on board. On the ship, the NGO’s staff could only wait in disbelief. The negotiations were interminable while their provisions were running out. There were more and more appeals by the international community: from the UN, from the EU Commission, from Berlin. On board were 11 children, seven pregnant women who had been raped in the prison camps in Libya, 123 unaccompanied minors, and 15 burn victims, as well as many migrants showing symptoms of hypothermia.
Marco Bertotto, the head of Advocacy and Public Awareness for Doctors without Borders (MSF), has pointed out that “a good part of the bridge, where the majority of the migrants are found, is not covered, and therefore dozens of people are being exposed to the sun and heat.” However, that was judged of no importance in the face of “reasons of State.” The Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, closed the Italian ports. While Rome and La Valletta were hurling accusations at each other, despair was taking hold on board the ship: a man was threatening to jump into the sea to avoid being sent back to the North African concentration camps.
The MSF volunteers were doing everything they can to assist the people being effectively held hostage by politics: migrants exploited by smugglers and traffickers, tortured in the detention camps, then rescued by boats and now waiting in limbo. Salvini was deaf in the face of the humanitarian appeals that came from everywhere, including the Vatican. In a tweet, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, quoted a verse from the Gospel: “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in” (Matt. 25:43), with the hashtag #Aquarius.
Spain took charge to resolve the situation. The first ones who took the initiative were the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and the mayor of Valencia, Joan Ribo, who offered to host the Aquarius. Then the Socialist Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, intervened: “It is our duty to help prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and to offer a safe harbor for these people,” he said. The Aquarius should arrive at the port of Valencia on the Spanish coast within four days—“towards the end of the week” according to Efe, citing “sources coordinating the operation.”
While Salvini’s iron fist approach opened up the first cracks in the alliance with the M5S (despite the leadership, with Di Maio front and center, trying to “right the ship”—indeed), the international community heaved a sigh of relief. “[We] welcome the decision of the Spanish Government to let the Aquarius disembark in Valencia for humanitarian reasons. This is real solidarity put in practice,” said European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos on Twitter. “My strong appeal is that, recognizing that countries have the right to manage their borders and have the right to define their own migration policies … countries should do it in full respect for international refugee law,” said the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, criticizing the actions of the Italian government.
The leader of the Labor opposition in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, in a debate with the conservative British Prime Minister Theresa May, challenged the UK government to comment on the case of the Aquarius, praising the actions of Sanchez and criticizing the Italian ban as well as the Tory policy on immigration in Britain. But Salvini was only interested in fanning the flames: “Obviously, raising our voice, which Italy has not done in years, is paying off.” He added: “Victory. 629 immigrants aboard the ship Aquarius going to Spain. First objective accomplished,” convinced that he has “opened up a frontline in Brussels.”
At the Palazzo Chigi last night, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, returning from Arquata del Tronto, brought together “all the responsible ministers and authorities, because the immigration issue must be addressed in a comprehensive manner, even if the problem Aquarius has gotten a solution with Spain’s gesture, showing generosity, solidarity and responsibility.” These soothing words are in radical contrast with those of his vice-prime minister, Salvini, who announced a cut in funding for the allowances of migrants. “We are working on the figure of 35 Euros. I want it to go down to the European average, because all EU countries spend less, and we also want to spend less,” he warned.
While the Prime Minister was making his conciliatory appeal, Salvini was writing on Twitter that “the ship Sea Watch 3, belonging to a German NGO and under a Dutch flag, is now off the Libyan coast waiting to ferry yet another load of immigrants, destination Italy. Italy is no longer bowing its head and obeying, this time some are saying no. #chiudiamoiporti.” (“#closetheharbors”) The NGO denies this: “The Sea Watch 3 is right now in international waters, it is not currently involved in search and rescue operations, and no rescued persons are aboard the ship.”
At 6 pm Tuesday, in Milan, the association “Insieme senza muri” (“Together without walls”) demonstrated in the streets, because “we cannot remain indifferent to what is happening in our seas, there is no ‘reason of State’ that is worth more than human life.” The CGIL union has announced a mobilization at the European level “to oppose this racist drift.” The founder of Libera, Don Luigi Ciotti, had bitter words to say: “Faced with these dramatic events, I feel such a longing for basic humanity, as we are talking about people here. Today, to resist means to exist.”