The rescue boat at the heart of Europe’s crisis

Rock the boat: They mostly came from Sudan, Nigeria, Eritrea, South Sudan and Algeria. © Getty

Whose responsibility are refugees? As World Refugee Day approaches, ships carrying 630 migrants have finally docked in Spain. The EU spent a week arguing about where they should end up.

People were singing and dancing as the Aquarius finally docked in Valencia in Spain yesterday. They were greeted by 1,000 volunteers and dozens of journalists. A huge banner read “Welcome Home” in several languages — although earlier, far-right protesters had waved signs opposing the new arrivals.

Why all the fuss over one ship? (Or, to be accurate, three ships?)

The 630 migrants had been at sea for nine days when they finally stepped onto dry land. They were rescued from the Mediterranean by the Aquarius, a ship operated by SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières. This has become fairly standard over the last three years — at the beginning of the month, the United Nations (UN) said 32,080 migrants had travelled to Europe by sea in 2018.

However, Italy has a new government, including a far-right interior minister who campaigned fiercely against immigration.

And so, for the first time, Italy refused to take in the rescued migrants. Instead they were directed to Malta — but then Malta refused to take them either. The incident sparked a diplomatic row across Europe, with French President Emmanuel Macron accusing Italy of “cynicism and irresponsibility”.

Eventually Spain, which also has a new prime minister, agreed to take them in to avoid “a humanitarian catastrophe”. France offered to help.

The people on board the ship came from 26 different countries, mostly in Africa. Among them were 123 minors, 11 children under 13 and seven pregnant women.

“The weather was very bad unfortunately, and the sea was rough,” a representative from SOS Mediterranée told the BBC yesterday. “So people are in a bad state.”

The fate of refugees and migrants is a decades-old debate. After the Second World War, with hundreds of thousands of refugees across Europe, the UN signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. This outlined the definition of a refugee and gave them special protections.

There are now over 65 million displaced people around the world. Whose responsibility are they?

Rescue me

Everyone’s, say some. That is why the 1951 Convention stops people from being sent back home if they face persecution there. We have a moral duty to help people who are in need, especially when they show up on our doorstop. The whole world should help share this burden; Spain has done the right thing.

The convention is out of date, argue others. It depends on narrow definitions which do not include the many people on the Aquarius fleeing poverty, not persecution. It is not Europe’s responsibility to help those people — it is their home country’s. That is why the UN and Europe have launched a program helping migrants in Libya to return home. That approach is far better than risking the dangerous journey to Europe.

You Decide

  1. Was Italy right to refuse to let the Aquarius dock? Or was Spain right to open up its ports?
  2. Does everyone have a responsibility to help refugees?


  1. Wednesday is World Refugee Day. Create a poster or a video which highlights some of the problems refugees face.
  2. In groups, draft a new UN convention on refugees for the 21st century. It should include who counts as a refugee, who has responsibility for helping them, and what rights they have once they have settled somewhere new.

Some People Say...

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

Warsan Shire

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The other international law pertaining to migrant boats is the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This says that boats flying the flag of a country are required to rescue those who are “in distress” at sea. However, although the rubber dinghies that push out from Libya are unsafe, there is debate whether this in itself counts as “distress”.
What do we not know?
Whether Italy will continue rejecting boats, or whether Spain will keep accepting them. On Friday and Saturday last week, Spain rescued 933 people in the Mediterranean. Last week, Italy also warned two more boats that they would not be allowed into its ports. It is highly likely that migration will be a big topic at a meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron tomorrow.

Word Watch

Three ships
Although the migrants were picked up by the Aquarius, two Italian ships helped to transport them to Spain.
Some will now begin the process of applying for asylum. However, asylum seekers and refugees have specific definitions (see below) so for now it is more accurate to refer to the group as migrants.
According to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration. This represents around 15% of the numbers who had arrived in Europe from the Mediterranean this time two years ago.
New government
Formed three months after the general election, it is a coalition government between the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League party.
A person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality”.
65 million
According to the UNHCR. This includes 22.5 million refugees.
A North African country. Many migrants travel to Europe from here, thanks to a network of people smugglers in the country.

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