Span­ish min­is­ter at­tacks 'os­trich pol­i­tics' in row over res­cued mi­grants

The Guardian Australia - - Politics / World News - Sam Jones in Madrid and agen­cies

Spain’s for­eign min­is­ter has de­scribed his govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to take in the hun­dreds of refugees and mi­grants aboard the Aquarius res­cue ship as a “highly sym­bolic act” in­tended to jolt Europe out of its “os­trich pol­i­tics” on the is­sue of mi­gra­tion.

The 629 peo­ple, in­clud­ing chil­dren and preg­nant women, were res­cued by the French NGO SOS Méditer­ranée from wa­ters off the coast of Libya on Satur­day, and the Aquarius was caught in a stand­off over the week­end in which both Italy and Malta re­fused to al­low it to dock.

Spain’s new prime min­is­ter, Pe­dro Sánchez, stepped in on Mon­day and said the ship would be wel­come in the port of Va­len­cia, in­sist­ing his coun­try had a duty to help avert “a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe”.

On Tues­day the for­eign min­is­ter, Josep Bor­rell, said Spain had very clear aims. “This is a shared prob­lem and it has to be treated as a shared prob­lem,” he said.

“What Spain has done is un­der­take what you could see as a highly sym­bolic act – be­cause at the end of the day it only it in­volves a small num­ber of peo­ple – that will oblige the EU to aban­don its in­abil­ity when it comes to deal­ing with the prob­lem of mi­gra­tion.”

Bor­rell said the new govern­ment was “bang­ing its fist on the ta­ble” ahead of a meet­ing of Euro­pean lead­ers to dis­cuss mi­gra­tion and asy­lum at the end of June.

“When you look at the de­mo­graphic fig­ures you re­alise that we Eu­ro­peans are engaged in os­trich pol­i­tics, stick­ing our heads in the sand and think­ing they can’t see us be­cause we can’t see them,” he said. “Things can’t go on that way any more.”

He de­nied Spain’s de­ci­sion had handed vic­tory to the new Ital­ian govern­ment. “This is a vic­tory for the peo­ple who are on the boat,” he said. “They’re the ones who have won be­cause we don’t know where they’d be with­out Spain.”

He also dis­missed sug­ges­tions that the move could bring more peo­ple across the Mediter­ranean, say­ing de­mo­graph­ics and eco­nomics had al­ready made Europe “a mag­net”.

On Tues­day hun­dreds of the mi­grants and refugees aboard the Aquarius were be­ing trans­ferred to Ital­ian coast­guard and naval ves­sels to be­gin their jour­ney to Va­len­cia, de­spite pleas for them to be al­lowed to re­cu­per­ate in the near­est port.

MSF ap­plauded Sánchez’s of­fer of safe har­bour but said the pri­or­ity had to be the im­me­di­ate dis­em­barka­tion of the res­cued mi­grants.

“MSF wel­comes the im­por­tant ges­ture of hu­man­ity from Spain to dis­em­bark in Va­len­cia,” it said. “How­ever, this would mean al­ready ex­hausted peo­ple res­cued at sea would have to en­dure four more days ex­posed to the el­e­ments on the deck, in an over­crowded boat al­ready well over max­i­mum ca­pac­ity and in de­te­ri­o­rat­ing weather con­di­tions. The bet­ter op­tion would be to dis­em­bark the res­cued peo­ple in the near­est port, af­ter which they can be trans­ferred to Spain or other safe coun­tries for fur­ther care and le­gal pro­cess­ing.”

The char­ity said it was par­tic­u­larly wor­ried about sev­eral peo­ple who had swal­lowed sea­wa­ter, had been treated for hy­pother­mia or who had suf­fered se­vere chem­i­cal burns.

Sophie Beau, the head of SOS Méditer­ranée, said the Aquarius still had to travel 1,500km (930 miles) to Spain, adding: “It is start­ing to get tense on­board.”

In the mean­time the Aquarius was un­able to con­tinue its usual res­cue work off the coast of Libya, Beau said. “At this time the Aquarius, the big­gest res­cue boat in the Mediter­ranean, is go­ing far from its res­cue zone,” she said.

The Va­len­cia re­gional govern­ment said it was ex­pect­ing the mi­grants to ar­rive by the end of the week. Mónica Ol­tra, the re­gion’s vice-pres­i­dent, said the Red Cross was pre­par­ing to pro­vide shel­ter and med­i­cal as­sis­tance to peo­ple on ar­rival, and that other Span­ish re­gions and cities had of­fered to pro­vide longer-term sup­port.

Italy’s re­fusal to ac­cept the Aquarius was the first ma­jor anti-mi­grant move since the far-right in­te­rior min­is­ter, Mat­teo Salvini, took of­fice this month.

Au­thor­i­ties on the French is­land of Cor­sica also of­fered to host the mi­grants, the morn­ing af­ter SOS Méditer­ranée sug­gested the Aquarius would not be able to reach Spain safely due to de­te­ri­o­rat­ing weather con­di­tions.

On Tues­day the Ital­ian prime min­is­ter, Giuseppe Conte, hit back at sharp crit­i­cism from France over the saga, ac­cus­ing Paris of be­ing hyp­o­crit­i­cal, cyn­i­cal and rigid.

“The state­ments around the Aquarius af­fair that come from France are sur­pris­ing and show a se­ri­ous lack of knowl­edge about what is re­ally hap­pen­ing. Italy can­not ac­cept hyp­o­crit­i­cal lessons from coun­tries that have al­ways pre­ferred to turn their backs when it comes to im­mi­gra­tion,” Conte’s of­fice said.

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