France has initiated discreet talks with the European Commission to find a solution for the Open Arms, a Spanish rescue ship carrying 151 migrants that has spent 13 days out at sea after being denied port entry by nearby countries.
French Interior Ministry source
“Just like every other time this kind of situation has come up, France is taking the initiative and actively contributing to the search for a solution at the European scale to disembark and take in the rescued individuals,” said a spokesperson for the French Interior Ministry in a conversation with EL PAÍS. “There are talks currently underway under the aegis of the Commission.”
On August 7, the Catalan-based aid organization Proactiva Open Arms sent a letter to France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez asking them for help.
The letter urged these European leaders to activate a procedure known as a “formal coordination petition” in Brussels in order to distribute the migrants across the EU territory, a move that might convince Italy and Malta to allow port entry to the rescue ship, which is located 30 nautical miles away from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Since June of last year, authorities in Malta and Italy have been refusing port entry to rescue vessels operated by non-profit groups, unless a previous agreement exists to relocate the migrants in other countries.
But none of the three countries contacted by the non-profit has made the formal demand, and the European Commission has yet to open official negotiations. Commission sources admitted on Tuesday, however, that it is in touch with several member states in a bid to end the crisis.
Spanish government sources have suggested that the executive is also involved in the effort. “From the beginning, we have been working on a common European solution,” said a source, declining to provide more specific details.
Other sources familiar with the talks said that the European Commission has been working informally for several days on a migrant distribution scheme, although it was unclear whether Spain would be a part.
The Spanish executive says that taking in the migrants that Italy rejects would be tantamount to accepting the logic of the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who has closed off its ports to non-profit rescue ships. Ever since Salvini took a hard line against aid groups in June of last year, around 2,000 people have been stranded for days at sea before being allowed to disembark, according to Commission figures.
On the other hand, refusing to participate in a distribution scheme would reflect poorly on the government of Pedro Sánchez, of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). Sánchez initially took a welcoming attitude to these rescue efforts, taking in hundreds of migrants last year who had been refused entry by Malta and Italy.
There is a second rescue ship in the area awaiting permission for port entry
But Spain has since abandoned these unilateral initiatives, and aid groups say that authorities are no longer authorizing them to leave ports on rescue missions with the argument that the vessels are not properly equipped for such journeys.
Spain is also under migratory pressure from Morocco, the departure point for many more migrants than those making the central Mediterranean crossing this year. Spanish authorities want the European distribution scheme to include not just the migrants departing from Libya, as France and Germany suggest, but also those rescued on the Strait of Gibraltar and the westernmost part of the Mediterranean, known as the Alboran Sea.
Meanwhile, conditions on the ship continue to deteriorate. Several people have had to be evacuated for medical reasons, including two nine-month-old babies, one with respiratory problems, and their families. But 147 migrants remain on board.
And there is a second rescue ship in the area, the Ocean Viking, operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, which has requested port entry as well. This vessel is carrying 356 people on board, including 74 minors.
English version by Susana Urra.