France says ‘no’ to Marseille-bound migrant rescue ship

A new diplomatic row loomed Monday over the Aquarius as its operators announced the migrant rescue ship was heading to France, only for the French government to say it should dock at the nearest safe port instead.

France says 'no' to Marseille-bound migrant rescue ship

The ship, the only charity-operated rescue boat working in the central Mediterranean, has been repeatedly turned away by Italy and been forced to stop in Malta and Spain after missions in recent months. 

On Monday SOS Mediterranee, the charity which runs it, said its “only option” after picking up 58 migrants in its latest rescue was to head to the 
southern French port of Marseille where the NGO is headquartered.

“We alerted other countries but we find it hard to imagine that France would refuse, given the humanitarian situation,” said Francis Vallat, the head 
of SOS Mediterranee's French operations.

But the French government appeared reluctant to welcome the boat — which has become a bitter symbol of European divisions over migration — to dock.

France wants the ship to disembark its latest passengers at “the nearest safe port” under “a European solution”, the prime minister's office told AFP.

On Tuesday France's economy minister said Paris has turned down the boat's request to dock in Marseille.

“There are European rules. A boat with migrants on board must head to the closest European coastline. And the port of Marseille is not the closest. For the moment France has said 'no', because if we need to have a coherent policy on migration then we need to respect European rules.”

The Aquarius is currently near the Libyan coast, about four days from Marseille, according to Vallat.

The charity's director Frederic Penard told reporters that 58 migrants were onboard, including 17 women and 18 children.

Additional rescue operations might be carried out on the ship's voyage toward France, he added.

Flag at risk

The charity has refused calls by Italy and others to return the rescued migrants to Libya, saying the country — riven by conflict between rival armed groups — is not safe for refugees.

French President Emmanuel Macron has previously accused Italy of breaching international maritime law by turning away the Aquarius because the country is the closest to areas where the boat operates.

He was criticised at home for not offering safe haven to the Aquarius after it first became stranded in June, although France eventually offered asylum to about 80 rescued migrants. 

His centrist government passed a controversial immigration law in August which it insists strikes a balance between granting faster asylum while allowing faster deportation of those rejected as “economic” migrants.

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accuses the Aquarius of offering a “taxi service” to Europe for migrants in Libya and has said it is permanently barred from Italian ports.

SOS Mediterranee and fellow charity Doctors without Borders (MSF), which operate the boat jointly, suffered a major setback Saturday when Panama said it would stop allowing the Aquarius to fly its flag at sea.

The decision came after Gibraltar withdrew authorisation for the Aquarius to use its flag in August, potentially leaving the boat stuck in legal limbo.

“We risk losing our Panama flag as soon as we reach land,” Penard said.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.