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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

The Aquarius affair is a damning indictment of modern Europe

As European powers squabble, the roots of the tragic migrant crisis go unattended to

The Aquarius arrives in Valencia, Spain. Heino Kalis / Reuters
The Aquarius arrives in Valencia, Spain. Heino Kalis / Reuters

When several hundred migrants were plucked from deflating dinghies off the coast of Libya just over a week ago, among them children and pregnant women, they might have thought the worst was over.

Instead, the 629 desperate migrants who were rescued and later hauled on board the NGO vessel Aquarius became embroiled in a diplomatic dispute that divided Europe. For the rescued migrants, rejected by both Italy and Malta before finally finding refuge in Spain and France, are the very visible faces of a much deeper problem – one that saw 150,982 migrants cross the Mediterranean last year and 2,839 die trying, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Desperate people are often driven to risk life and limb fleeing conflict while others will leave their home countries in search of economic opportunity. But many are sold a lie by unscrupulous people traffickers, who enrich themselves by cashing in on their desperation.

Some migrants have reported being sold and incarcerated by smugglers in Libya. Others have died while wearing fake lifejackets sold to them by heartless opportunists in Turkey. Those who arrive on European shores then have their hopes dashed as the reality of their situation becomes clear. As The National reported in March, thousands are languishing in squalid camps on Greek islands. Many more, like those on Aquarius, are turned away upon arrival.

The annual numbers making the perilous journey might have reduced since 2015 but the situation is as unsustainable today.

As a result migrants have been used as tools to stoke xenophobic sentiment and score political points amid a wave of populism across Europe. Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini declared his country "no longer wants to be an accomplice in the business of illegal immigration”. French President Emmanuel Macron retaliated by calling him "cynical" and "irresponsible".

As European powers wrangle, the forces that spur these tragedies – from war in Syria to people traffickers lining their own pockets – go unattended.

Indeed the fact that a modest vessel containing 629 desperate migrants sparked such a callous spectacle by Italy and Malta, divisive rhetoric and a last-ditch “political gesture” from Spain’s new prime minister Pedro Sanchez is a sad indictment of modern Europe.

The plight of these vulnerable migrants speaks to the failure of the EU to deal with the influx from Africa and the Middle East, which saw 1.2 million people apply for asylum in Europe in 2015 alone, according to IOM.

Mr Sanchez’s decision to accept the migrants flies in the face of his neighbours' heartlessness. Local authorities in Valencia receiving them were inundated with more than 2,000 offers of help and the migrants were met with multilingual "welcome home" flags.

Nonetheless, the fact the gesture was deemed an act of great benevolence illustrates a deep rot at Europe’s core. What is required is a rethink of Europe’s current approach to migration – one that allows politicians to exploit the crisis while failing to address its devastating root causes.