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French ports 'ready to welcome migrant rescue ship'

The port of Sète in Hérault and Corsica both say they are ready to welcome the ship Aquarius, which is carrying 141 Africans rescued from the Mediterranean – however this would depend on the French government’s go-ahead.

The ship is currently waiting in the sea between Italy and Malta, after it saved the migrants last Friday and Franco-German charity SOS Méditerannée which operates it has said it is “calling on all the European countries to assume their responsibilities”.

Officially the French government has said it is ready to take a share of the migrants and is “having discussions with its partners to find a solution in the respect of humanitarian principles” but the ship should dock in the safest port near to its location.

Both Italy and Malta have refused and Spain, which allowed the ship to land with a previous group of migrants in June, also appears not to be keen to help this time. The office of its prime minister told newspaper El Pais “Spain is not the safest port because it is not the closest according to what is set out under international law”.

The migrants were travelling from Libya to Italy in two wooden boats, which capsized. According to El Pais many come from Eritrea where many young men have fled to avoid conscription and from Somalia which has suffered years of civil war. Some 67 are said to be unaccompanied minors.

SOS Méditerranée co-founder Sophie Beau told France Info the migrants are “in a stable but worrying condition… very fragile… in a state of exhaustion” and she alleged they had been maltreated in camps in Libya before they took to the sea. They did not take them back to Libya, because it is not safe, she said.

However French MEP for Rassemblement National (former Front National), Nicolas Bay, accused ‘immigrationists’ of wanting to make European countries feel guilty for not taking ‘illegal migrants’, saying “there is no reason for these people to come to Europe”.

He added: “We should call a halt to this way of thinking that consists of opening up our doors in Europe and inciting hundreds of thousands of unfortunate people to take thoughtless risks, fatten the wallets of mafias and people smugglers and allow a veritable trade in human beings to develop”.

Gibraltar, a UK overseas territory, says it plans to strip the ship Aquarius of its Gibraltar registration, because it was originally registered as a ‘survey vessel’ but has been used for rescue work. It is expected to revert to German registration as it is German-owned. Italy’s transport minister has suggested the UK is responsible for the migrants as it is flying the flag of a British territory.

SOS Méditeranée said it had been completely transparent about the use of the ship and said the move showed a “deliberate will to stop the rescue activity of the Aquarius, one of the last civil and humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean”. “The Gibraltar Maritime Authority is disguising a political manoeuvre behind an incoherent argument,” it said.

In an interview published in June’s edition of The Connexion, SOS Méditerranée founder Klaus Vogel explained how the charity was set up after the Italian government abruptly cancelled rescue operation Mare Nostrum in 2014 and “there was literally nobody to help”. He said the ship operates between Sicily and Libya, where many Africans flee from other areas “where there are war zones or because there is hunger and no work”.

He added: “In Libya they are trapped and the situation there is terrible, especially for sub-Saharan people. They have no choice but to flee by sea, in dangerous and fragile boats.”

The charity had since rescued 26,000 people, he said, however he said: “European solidarity, on rescue and doing the minimum of humanitarian aid to these people, is not working properly.”

The bottom line is that “we cannot leave them to die at sea,” he said.

For the full interview from the newspaper [free for subscribers, or otherwise paywall for 85% of article] see this link. 

Previous article: Lille grants refugee status to Sudanese migrants from Aquarius 

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