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.

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

The 630 migrants had been at sea for nine days. They had been travelling from Libya in unsafe boats when they were rescued by the Aquarius, a rescue ship that is run by two charities. This is not unusual — as of May 30, a total of 32,080 migrants had travelled to Europe by sea in 2018.

However, Italy has a new government which refused to take in the rescued migrants. The incident sparked a row across Europe. Eventually Spain, which also has a new prime minister, agreed to take them in, with an offer of help from France.

“The sea was rough,” a representative from one of the charities running the Aquarius told the BBC yesterday. “So people are in a bad state.”

The fate of refugees and migrants is a decades-old debate. In 1951, the United Nations (UN) signed the Refugee Convention which 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. Spain has done the right thing.

The convention is out of date, argue others. It does 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. They should be helped to return home instead of risking such a dangerous journey.

You Decide

  1. Was Italy right to refuse to let the Aquarius dock? Or was Spain right to open up its ports?


  1. Wednesday is World Refugee Day. Create a poster or a video which highlights some of the problems refugees face.

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 important international law here is the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This says that boats are required to rescue those who are “in distress” at sea.
What do we not know?
Whether Europe will change its response to migration. It is likely that this will be a big topic at a meeting between the German chancellor and French president tomorrow.

Word Watch

Three ships
The Aquarius, plus two Italian ships.
Asylum seekers and refugees have very specific definitions. For now it is more accurate to refer to the group as migrants.
According to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration.
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.

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