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European leaders urged to guarantee safe ports for migrants

Charities warn that political standoff is costing lives as Italy refuses entry to another ship
Charities operating search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean have called on European leaders to urgently guarantee safe ports for migrants and refugees, warning the political standoff is already costing lives.
As EU leaders met on Sunday for an emergency summit on migration, a week after 630 people rescued by the Aquarius ship arrived in Spain having been turned away by Italy and Malta, the fate of another vessel remained in limbo.
The German NGO Mission Lifeline said its ship, carrying 234 people, was adrift in international waters after Italy refused it entry and Maltese authorities told the vessel to head back to Italy.
Some of the charities accused the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, of placing political concerns before lives.
A spokesman for the German NGO Sea-Watch said: “It’s absolutely unacceptable that policy is being made at the expense of people in maritime distress.”
As well as the 234 people onboard the Lifeline, he said, more than 100 had been rescued off southern Italy on Saturday by the container ship Alexander Maersk.
“At the same time, people are drowning in the central Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “The UN refugee agency has put out numbers, with more than 200 people drowned just in the last five days. That’s a direct effect of the policy of crackdown on sea rescue.
“We expect a fast solution for the people on the Lifeline and on the Alexander Maersk, because it’s unacceptable for people to be held hostage as a political statement.”
A spokesman for Mission Lifeline said it did not know what would happen to those onboard its vessel, or what Italy’s stance could mean for the future.
Òscar Camps, the founder of the Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms, whose ship was impounded by Italian authorities in March, said the number of people drowning in the Mediterranean had risen by 20% since Salvini’s decision to turn away the Aquarius.
“It’s not our job to say whether these people are legal or illegal,” he said. “We’re talking about people’s lives and our job is to act.
“The only thing that’s illegal at sea are Mr Salvini’s decisions. There are some red lines that shouldn’t be crossed. If they’re crossed, then this could turn into a serious diplomatic situation.”
Camps said it would not be practical for ships to ferry rescued migrants and refugees to Spanish ports, even if the new government in Madrid agreed to take in more, as it had with the Aquarius.
“That’s not a good idea technically,” he said. “We can’t spend days making for Spain with people onboard in terrible conditions. It uses a lot of fuel.” Rescue ships needed to be allowed into the nearest port, he said, especially if they were carrying injured people who needed medical treatment.
“We can’t hang around waiting for ages for them to assign us a port,” Camps said. “We need to act to minimise the loss of life. That’s what any sensible person would do.”
SOS Méditerranée, which operates the Aquarius with Médecins Sans Frontières, described the international standoff over its ship as a “wakeup call” and demanded action when EU leaders meet again on Thursday and Friday.
“People rescued at sea must be brought to a port of safety where their basic needs are ensured, including specific medical needs, and where they can seek the appropriate protection they are entitled to under both international and national law,” it said in a statement.
“Protection from any forms of further abuse, exploitation and trafficking must especially be guaranteed. As the EU will be looking towards new instruments during next week’s EU council, the objective of preserving and protecting lives of people in distress must be discussed, before any other policy consideration.”
Last week, Elhadj As Sy, the secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said Europe’s treatment of the Aquarius constituted a betrayal of its basic values.
MSF, meanwhile, said the episode showed European migration and asylum policies had failed and the EU had lost it its humanity.