Thursday

5th Aug 2021

Investigation

EU paid Italy at least €200,000 for migrant stunt

  • Italian navy and coast guard escorted Aquarius to Spain (Photo: Wikimedia)

Italy spent at least €200,000 in EU funds to escort the Aquarius rescue boat to Valencia in Spain after refusing it permission to disembark more than 600 migrants at its own ports in June.

An analysis of data obtained through a Freedom of Information request revealed the size of the bill racked up by the Italian coastguard, which was called in to provide assistance in the politically-charged operation.

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  • The 600 people on board included unaccompanied minors and pregnant women in need of medical care (Photo: SOS Mediterranee)

It also indicated that around 90 percent of the budget for the journey was provided by European Commission grants for emergency rescue services.

"Those are without any doubt exorbitant costs," Vittorio Alessandro, a former Italian coast guard commander, now retired, told EUobserver, "especially since the case was purely political, rather than being motivated by logistical or organisational reasons".

On 10 June 2018, the Aquarius, a rescue boat operated by French NGO SOS Mediterranee, was refused permission by Italian authorities to dock in any of the southern Italian ports where migrants rescued at sea had been routinely transported to in the past.

The decision was widely interpreted as a show of force towards other EU nations from a new coalition government formed of the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League, which had been sworn in just a few days earlier.

Launching the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti ("let's shut down the ports"), Matteo Salvini, League leader and interior minister, wrote on Facebook that "the rest of Europe had been minding its own business" on migration matters for a long time.

"From today Italy says 'NO' to the business of illegal immigration," he said, while calling on Malta to welcome the Aquarius instead.

The Maltese government retorted that the rescue of the migrants had been coordinated by Rome and that it was not its responsibility.

The exchange kicked off a tense international standoff.

While EU countries argued over its final destination, the Aquarius was left stranded in the Mediterranean with some 630 passengers onboard, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.

After 24 hours of fraught negotiations, Spain's prime minister Pedro Sanchez eventually announced that the port of Valencia would offer the people safe harbour.

Salvini immediately hailed the decision as a political victory: "629 [sic] migrants headed for Spain, our first goal has been reached," he said. "Evidently raising our voice paid off," he added.

However, several international observers, including the United Nations' Refugee Agency, voiced discomfort over the prospect of putting migrants, many of whom were in dire health conditions, through a 1,400km journey at sea. SOS Mediterranee added that it would be logistically impossible to take all of the passengers to Valencia on its own.

In a bid to ease pressure on the Aquarius, the Italian government decided to transfer hundreds of the rescued migrants to two smaller vessels, the Dattilo and the Orione, which were, respectively, operated by the Italian coast guard and the Italian navy. The Italian ships flanked the Aquarius on its way to Valencia and reached the Spanish port together.

It was a sensible move, but one which skyrocketed the costs of Italian rescue services.

Expenses breakdown

According to information released by the Italian coast guard, operating the Dattilo ship alone costs €740.15 for every sailing hour.

As the journey to reach Valencia and return back to Italy took around 290 hours, it can be calculated that expenses ran just short of €215,000.

Additionally, the coast guard paid crew members onboard the Dattilo a total of €5,500 per day in extra fees. The whole operation lasted 14 days, thus adding another €77,000 to the bill.

"We should have not wasted so much money on what was nothing more than a political stunt," Alessandro, the retired coast guard commander, said after seeing the data. "If we compare the cost of that initiative with the coast guard's ordinary expenses, it becomes clear that it was out of any proportion."

EUobserver also submitted an FOI request to the Italian navy for data on the costs of the Orione vessel, but no response had been received at the time of publication.

Without that information the full costs of the Aquarius incident remain unknown.

However, based on the Dattilo expenses alone, it can be estimated the Italian government forked out around €292,000 for a move chiefly aimed at sending a hardline message to the EU over migration issues.

Ironically, though, it was Brussels itself which footed most of the bill.

As the Italian coast guard indicated, "only 10 percent of such expenses is directly supported by the [Italian] state's budget, while the remainder is co-funded by the European Union."

The Dattilo's journey to Valencia was, in fact, subsidised by EU commission grants allocated for the purpose of safeguarding human life at sea.

Two agreements with a total value of €14.8m were signed by the EU migration and home affairs directorate and the Italian coast guard, respectively, in March and November 2017.

Drawn from the commission's so-called Internal Security Fund, the budget covers, among other things, direct costs incurred by the coast guard's boats in search and rescue operations.

Tensions still high

More than two months after the Aquarius crisis, the political climate over migration flows in the Mediterranean Sea remains tense.

Italian authorities have repeatedly denied rescue boats carrying migrants the authorisation to dock in Italian ports.

On 13 August, the Italian government refused the Aquarius permission to disembark another 141 passengers, suggesting that either Malta or the United Kingdom should take responsibility instead.

Eventually, a compromise was found: the ship docked in La Valletta, after several EU countries had agreed to take some of the passengers.

As soon as that dispute was settled, a fresh one broke out.

In a further escalation of the standoff, this week an Italian coast guard ship, the Diciotti, was left stranded at sea for five days with 190 rescued migrants on board as Italian authorities denied its own ship the right to disembark at any port.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international charity, urged Italy to let them off the boat for badly needed "psychological first aid"

But Salvini said that he might even send the people back to Libya, where migrants risk grave human rights abuses, to "do what will definitively end the human traffickers' business".

The vessel was eventually allowed to land in Catania, Sicily, on Tuesday (21 August) morning, but Salvini is still refusing permission to disembark the passengers, until they have been distributed among EU member states.

The EU commission's Migration and Home Affairs Directorate did not respond to requests of comment sent by EUobserver ahead of publication. Questioned by reporters at the Commission's press briefing on Wednesday (22 August), spokesperson Tove Ernst said "they could not confirm the information at this stage".

"We have standard procedures through which we assess eligibility of actions reported and costs incurred at the end of the reporting period," Ernst added.

"It's only at that stage that we can determine whether costs can be supported and analyse the activities member states have carried out with EU funding."

Analysis

Aquarius, Dublin: Is EU losing grip on asylum reform?

The standoff over the rescue boat, which is now heading to Spain, is part of a wider politically toxic narrative against refugees and migrants and a symptom of EU failures to reform asylum laws.

EU still not clear on where to put rescued migrants

The mandate for Operation Sophia, the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean sea, ends in December. Demands to change it, including new rules on disembarkation, are set to be agreed within the next few weeks.

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