What is behind the Aquarius refugee ship crisis?

The EU has to recognise that its war adventures caused the refugee crisis and start working on a real solution.

Aquarius ship
Migrants wait to disembark from the Aquarius rescue ship in the Sicilian harbour of Catania in Italy on May 27, 2018 [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

On June 11, Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blocked the Aquarius rescue ship carrying 629 refugees and migrants from docking at its ports.

The boat is operated by the European charity SOS Mediterranee. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have stated that the boat was also carrying 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.

“From today, Italy will start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration,” said Salvini, who also heads the far-right League party.

Italy’s new government – a coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League party – seems intent on stopping the flow of refugees into the country, as promised on the campaign trail under the slogan “Italians first”. In fact, anti-immigrant sentiment was perhaps the most unifying rally cry for Salvini’s League party supporters.

Salvini’s decision does indeed constitute a drastic change of course, which set off days of diplomatic confrontation and provoked a wave of public indignation in some sectors of Italian society. However, it is also true that condemning Italy without placing this story in a broader context would serve no purpose in addressing growing populism in the European Union (EU).

Europe is facing the most significant displacement crisis since World War II. All attempts at dealing with the issue have fallen short, mostly because they have ignored the root causes of the problem.

Taking responsibility for European military adventures and political meddling could be a good first step towards developing a holistic strategy based on joint regional and international efforts to address the crisis.

Actions without solutions

Two seemingly contradicting approaches have thus far occupied the political space concerning the issue of refugees and immigrants in the EU. The first approach views the problem as entirely humanitarian, without addressing political issues that lead to its creation in the first place.

The second – a view that champions anti-immigration policies, led by populist right-wing parties – insists on devising provisional solutions with little or no humanitarian considerations whatsoever. This also fails to provide a structural and multi-dimensional solution to the crisis.

Aquarius charity ship of rejected refugees close to Spain

Legal frameworks which were established in Italy and the EU in the early 2000s reflected both approaches.

Ironically, between 2001 and 2005, Salvini’s party was actually a member of a coalition government – along with the National Alliance, the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – which forged crucial immigration legislation.

In 2002, for example, it passed the Bossi-Fini law, which restricted entry to asylum seekers and criminalised illegal immigration. It failed to curb the flow of immigrants.

In 2003, the so-called EU Dublin Regulation established a Europe-wide fingerprinting database through what became known as Eurodac. The new regulations dictated that entrants to the EU must be deported to the first EU country from which they entered to apply for asylum. Once more this placed more pressure on “front-line countries”, since most applicants arrived in Europe through Spain, Italy or Greece.

In 2004, the same Italian government ratified two amendments to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) conventions.

According to the amendments, those retrieved at sea must be taken to a port belonging to the country in which they were rescued. While Malta refused to sign the amendments, Italy did, leaving two countries with close proximity operating based on two different laws.

This particular contradiction represents part of the current dilemma concerning the Aquarius rescue ship, resulting in the diplomatic crisis between Italy and other EU countries.

Over the years, Italy and other “front-line countries” complained about the unequal burden they have to bear in receiving migrants and refugees trying to make it to Europe.

In an attempt to reverse this tendency, the EU establisheda mandatory quota system in 2015 to help with the relocation of many refugees. Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic voted against the move.

Refugee ship row: Italian and French leaders to meet

The new system, however, was enacted through a majority vote, yet it remained controversial and was recognised later as ineffective.

The mismanagement of the refugee and migration crisis has fed a growing feeling of discontent especially in “front-line countries”, such as Italy. That discontent is fuelled by severe economic crises and political turmoil, both leading to the rise of right-wing, populist movements across the EU.

It is under these conditions that Salvini’s party offered immediate action in Italy. Although the “solution” catered to the populist mantra that “something must be done” regardless of the consequences, the approach is striking a chord with many Italians, who feel beleaguered by harsh economic realities, frustrated by the failure of the EU and their own stifling status quo politics.

Refugees and war

Provisional solutions can only yield temporary outcomes. Italy’s immigration and refugee problem has been a direct outcome of the war in Libya, which it orchestrated along with other EU and Western powers.

Italy and Libya signed a “friendship agreement” in 2008, which resulted in significant reduction of human smuggling.

Although reluctant at the start, Italy played a role in the toppling of the government of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

What can France offer to end the crisis in Libya?

France, which was keen on helping Libya to break out of its international isolation after the lifting of UN sanctions on Tripoli in 2003 by working closely with Gaddafi (signing various agreements and selling Tripoli hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons), also enthusiastically engineered the overthrow of the Libyan government.

In fact, France and the UK were the two main partners in the war on Libya. Interestingly, they are also the least hospitable towards war refugees.

The chaos that ensued, as a result, turned Libya into a failed state. In 2016 alone, over 170,000 refugees and migrants crossed over from Libya into Italy.

Despite the obvious correlation between Western-sustained wars and the EU’s refugee crisis, no moral awakening has taken place – neither for Italy or France, nor the UK or any of the other loud war cheerleaders. Worse, France and Italy are now involved in exploiting the current warring factions in Libya for their own interests.

Europe still expects Libya – suffering the outcomes of war without a strong central government – to tackle the refugee and immigrant crisis alone.

Syria is not an entirely different story.

While there is much blame to go around in Syria, the EU is hardly innocent in all of this. The Syria war has resulted in a massive influx of refugees, most of whom are hosted by neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, many sailed the sea, through Turkey, to seek safety in Europe.

No matter what Italy’s new right-wing government coalition does to stem the flow of refugees and immigrants, the refugees, desperate to find a lifeline and peace, will always find new ways to be smuggled to the most unwelcoming continent.

The EU must accept that the refugee crisis will continue until the wars in Libya and Syria end, leading to sustainable political settlements and stable governments.

If wars continue to rage on, thanks to Western weapons and support of various factions, refugees will continue to flee for safety. For a paradigm shift to occur, the EU’s foreign policy must fundamentally change. 

Failure to do so cannot be blamed on one single country, for the whole of Europe is culpable. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.