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5th Apr 2020

NGO Mediterranean rescue standoff exposes EU rift

  • Sea-Watch is a German NGO, sailing under a Dutch flag (Photo: Sea Watch)

The Netherlands on Wednesday (3 January) said it was willing to take in some of the migrants stuck on a NGO boat in the Mediterranean - if other EU states are willing to do the same.

Some 32 migrants are on the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3, currently moored off the coast of Malta after having been rescued late December near the Libyan coast.

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The Dutch offer highlights an ongoing debate among entrenched EU states unwilling to coordinate sea rescues, as migrants and refugees seek safety and better futures in an increasingly unwelcoming European Union.

Lennart Wegewijs, a Dutch spokesman from the security and justice ministry, said the country was ready "to possibly take in a proportional number of migrants who are on board Sea-Watch 3, on condition that other European countries do the same."

The Netherlands had initially refused, along with Italy, Malta and Spain, in a stand-off while conditions onboard the boat appear to be deteriorating amid a storm surge.

The European Commission says it has been in contact with a number of EU states to find a solution for those onboard the NGO boat, which include four women, three children, and four unaccompanied minors.

The youngest child is a one-year old.

A commission spokeswoman told reporters in Brussels that EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos has been reaching out directly to member states in a bid to get the people off the boat.

"More solidarity of all member states is needed and the situation shows once again, as we have said many times, that predictable and sustainable solutions for disembarkation and allocation is urgently needed in the Mediterranean," said the commission spokeswoman.

The dangerous sea crossings have cost the lives of more than 2,240 people last year alone, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

The agency says the rate of fatalities has increased since 2017, with one-in-18 people crossing to Europe between January and July lost at sea.

But the spike in fatality rates appears to have done little to curb government-led policies to render rescues at sea by NGOs more difficult.

Italy has closed its ports to the boats since last summer as Matteo Salvini, the far-right interior minister, squared off with Italian mayors who are more willing to help.

One of those mayors is Luigi de Magistris of Naples who said he was ready to open the city's ports to Sea-Watch, according to Italy's Ansa news wire.

"I hope this boat comes to the port of Naples because unlike what the government says we will put into the field a rescue action and we will let it into the port," he said.

A second vessel known as the Sea Eye, with 17 people on board, has also been trouble since late December.

The Sea Eye had refused to hand over the rescued people to the Libyan Coast Guard, given the deplorable conditions in the country, and is now caught in limbo off the Maltese coast.

The Sea Eye says the crew and the migrants are suffering from sea sickness given the stormy conditions and that they are having to ration water and food.

Some 117,540 people crossed the Mediterranean last year from the north African coast, a fraction of the more than one million that made the same journey in 2015.

Spain, including its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves in northern Morocco, is now the main destination point for arrivals.

More than 60,000 arrived in the country last year, surpassing the combined total of both Greece and Italy.

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