Valletta, Malta – As it slowly steamed towards Boilers Wharf to be impounded by Maltese authorities, the MV Lifeline faced disgrace with a note of triumph – two long toots on its horn, signalling pride in its rescue of over 200 refugees and migrants between Italy and Libya.
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had earlier in the day said the Lifeline would be investigated for not being registered as a search and rescue ship but a pleasure boat, for disobeying Italian authorities coordinating rescue operations north of Libyan waters, and for sometimes switching off its transponder in an apparent attempt to conceal its whereabouts.
“It is extremely worrying that there was a vessel intercepting people, carrying people on board, claiming to have a particular registration…and we have it black on white – the Dutch are saying, ‘No, this is not the case.'”
Muscat’s intimation was that the Lifeline was abetting smugglers under the guise of conducting rescue, though he did not openly say this.
Mission Lifeline, which owns and operates the vessel, is a German-registered charity, and its head says he has the documentation to rebut Muscat’s allegations.
The ship operated without problems last year, Axel Steier told Al Jazeera, implying that it was the arrival of an anti-immigrant Italian government on June 1 that caused the Lifeline’s problems.
“We started last year in September and we started here in Malta, too. We had five missions with this boat last year and rescued 549 people,” Steier said.
The boat resumed its mission in May after a winter refit in Sicily, Steier said.
Maltese police took the refugees and migrants on board the Lifeline to a processing centre, from where many would be seconded to other European Union members.
Without this burden-sharing agreement, Muscat said, Malta would not have allowed the 32-metre vessel to dock, even though it had been battered by high waves and winds for six days, leaving its passengers seasick.
The ship had already been turned away by Italy and Spain.
“What I think it is, is a situation where there were member states who showed that for them, the values of European solidarity are not just found in the European treaties, but that we act together,” Muscat told Al Jazeera.
The Lifeline’s plight was the second time this month that a rescue ship was unable to offload its purported refugees in a safe European port.
Italy refused to take more than 600 refugees and migrants on board the Aquarius on June 10, even though many of them had been transferred from Italian coastguard vessels, who would have eventually brought them to Italy for registration.
It suggested the Aquarius to Malta, which refused to be coerced. It was eventually received by Spain.
Shot across EU’s bows
This stark refusal by the government of Giuseppe Conte just 10 days into its term was a shot across the bows of the European Union, which convenes on Thursday for a summit that will likely be dominated by the migration issue.
And it came days after German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer reportedly broke with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s inclusive policy towards migrants and refugees.
She held a mini-summit on migration on June 24, to which Italy came bearing a 10-point policy menu designed to push migration back from EU maritime borders.
It suggested setting up “centres of international protection” in transit countries, to assess asylum applications, rather than this being done on European soil; strengthening border control; and signing more bilateral agreements with countries that produce refugees and migrants to make re-admission easier.
The Conte proposal also suggested greater burden-sharing, however.
Under the current rules, countries receiving or rescuing migrants and refugees must take full responsibility for offering them international protection or deporting them.
Conte wants rescue decoupled from assessment, because the EU members defending external borders are saddled with disproportionate numbers of applications.
The only EU members who would benefit from redistribution of cases are Italy, Greece and Germany, who last year logged 58 percent of EU asylum cases, rather than the 32 percent the European Commission deems to be their fair share. Every other member state currently falls below their Commission quota.
The Commission leaked a working document during the mini-summit, which suggests that the outcomes Merkel may be working towards at the two-day summit are designed to appease the hardliners in Europe and within her own cabinet.
The draft document agrees with Conte that, “the Libyan coastguard’s ability to stop the departing boats and deny the smugglers activity”, is “a key element to prevent illegal migration”.
It agrees with more agreements with third countries. It also declares, “we will counter secondary movements across internal borders, as there is no right to freely choose the Member State where to apply for asylum (sic).”
This is a direct concession to Seehofer’s Christian Social Union, Merkel’s coalition partner, which has threatened to unilaterally close the Bavarian border to migrants and refugees who entered the EU through Greece and Italy, and smuggled themselves north.
Such a plan, were it to be put into effect, would likely see many thousands of refugees returned to Greece and Italy each year.
This highlights the paradox hardliners face across the EU – that their own exclusive policies would come at the expense of their neighbours, many of whom are also anti-migration hardliners.
Muscat pleaded from Valletta on Wednesday for a depoliticisation of migration, and a return to the EU tradition of consensus and collective action.
“I don’t think it’s all about grandstanding and high-flying political declarations,” Muscat said.
“It’s about how we act operationally and how we manage the situation.”