October 28, 2018
October 29, 2018


Aquarius, a search and rescue vessel operated by the franco-german NGO SOS Méditerranée and  Médecins Sans Frontières was on its way to Italy with 629 refugees and migrants on board picked up in distress off the Libyan coast on 10 June, when the newly elected populist Italian government refused permission for it to dock. The large number of migrants including 7 pregnant women and 104 children were left stranded in the high seas due to the humanitarian standoff between Italy and Malta regarding who would take the migrants. Matteo Salvini, the interior minister of Italy announced that this would be the new policy to be pursued by Italy while dealing with migrants entering via the Mediterranean. Finally, the Spanish government agreed to facilitate disembarkation of all 629 rescued individuals in the port of Valencia as its duty towards averting a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
The refusal to let Aquarius dock is not an isolated incident but one of many which depict Europe’s “out of sight, out of mind” migration policy based on deterrence, criminalization and discrimination rather than protection, respect for human dignity and non-discrimination which is an appalling product of Europe’s frustrating response to the crisis. Whether it is the myopic measures taken on responsibility sharing, the hastily implemented Common European Asylum System (CEAS) which encompasses the Dublin III Regulation, the Dublin III Implementing Regulation, and the Eurodac Regulation or arranging deals with autocratic regimes with questionable human rights track record by providing financial assistance all for the sake of shifting the burden, the European Union has lost the moral authority to lead the liberal international order.
Italy’s failure in not providing a sanctuary to a search and rescue vessel is a pity at the very least, but EU’s deplorable responsibility sharing Dublin system under the CEAS which has put unsurmountable burden on frontline states is also to be blamed for this fiasco as Italy alone has taken more than 640,000 migrants since 2014. The existence of systemic deficiencies in some member states leading to a prohibition of return in case of risk of violation of Article 4 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights which prohibits torture or inhumane or degrading treatment, the failure of the implementation of the Relocation Decisions where the European Court of Justice (ECJ) affirmed that all EU Member States are legally obligated to relocate eligible asylum-seekers, the unfair distribution by the system itself and lastly the Member States being unable to negotiate a reform (Dublin IV) are responsible for the current state of affairs.
Further, the lack of solidarity among EU member states in dealing with the  confrontational impact of the first country of origin rule under the Dublin system has added salt to their woes and the Aquarius episode is nothing but the humanitarian consequence of the wearing down of solidarity among the Member States in the CEAS, raising question marks on the ‘Union’ of Europe altogether.
The immediate response to Italy and other frontline states’ griefs lies in the same thing Italy’s new populist government and various Euro-sceptic parties have despised upon – a more robust and unified European Union which has the ability to share the burden of caring with utmost compassion. Finding solutions to the gaps in the Dublin system is a must otherwise this consequent burden has the potential capacity to wear down the entire Schengen system. Strengthening the European Asylum Support Office is the need of the hour which should be made responsible for interpreting the rules for assigning refugees – deciding, for example, which country is responsible when member states disagree in individual cases.   A flexible list of safe ports (a system already applied in marine environment protection) along the European coastline of cities willing to accept disembarkations of migrants, now seems a policy option worth contemplating more seriously than ever as the Aquarius incident has thrown open EU’s lack of solidarity yet again.  
Italy distancing itself from Aquarius and her passengers in distress in not only wrongful under the EU law but also violative of basic tenets of human rights protection. Those fleeing these war-torn areas are actually attempting at escaping rape, torture-for-ransom, forced labour and, even slave auctions and are in need of humanitarian protection now more than ever.


Photo Credit: EU Observer




Rishabh Vohra is currently a 5th-year student at Amity Law School Delhi, GGSIP University, New Delhi. He has recently worked as a research intern at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, Germany. He has a keen interest in pursuing a career in academic research in the field of international humanitarian law and international refugee law.



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