By Dana Leger
Rabat – Rescuers claim that Italy’s new populist government risks the lives of migrants by closing its ports to rescue ships, warning that simply closing its ports will not deter migrants from making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
More than 600 people aboard the MV Aquarius rescue vessel have arrived safely in Valencia, Spain following several exhausting days at sea after Italy’s refusal to allow the ship to dock at its ports. About a week later, two more rescue ships have been barred from entering Italian ports.
Over the past few years, a fleet of volunteer ships have committed to undergoing the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea on a daily basis to deliver aid and rescue migrants attempting to safely reach Europe from North Africa’s shores.
The rescuers’ mission to safely transport those at risk has become increasingly difficult in recent days as Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister and head of the far-right League party, accused rescue missions of “being complicit in the illegal immigration business.”
Alex Steier, one of the cofounders of the Mission Lifeline rescue operation, told Al Jazeera, “We deny being involved in some kind of illegal immigration business,” adding that they are, “doing the job the countries should be doing.”
Mission Lifeline has been operating in the Mediterranean sea since September 2017. Utilizing a 32 meter long vessel, they can host up to 800 people.
“We have rescue equipment to conduct rescue missions. We also have a hospital on board for small surgeries,” said Steier, “And we have a lawyer on board to make sure we adhere to all laws.”
Italy has been the main point of entry for a large portion of the hundreds of thousands people attempting to reach Europe via the central Mediterranean route, but these numbers are drastically declining.
According to Ruben Neugebauer, from the rescue mission Sea Watch, closing ports will not deter people from making the perilous crossing. “We had more than 900 crossings to Spain just yesterday,” Neugebauer told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
As the Libyan-Italian route becomes more difficult due to Italy’s harshening immigration laws and a war torn Libya, an increasing number of sub-Saharan African migrants are trying to flee poverty and unrest in their countries by other means. Many are attempting to cross via Morocco either by land into Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish ports in the Moroccan territory, or by sea to the Spanish mainland.
Since 2014 Morocco has adopted a more open migration policy, providing windows for migrants to earn legal status in the country.
The kingdom also organized two operations to regularize the status of these migrants in 2014 and 2016. In the first operation, over 23,000 were granted a legal status, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa.
On Friday, 307 migrants were rescued from the Strait of Gibraltar, while the bodies of four dead were recovered.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 9,315 migrants reached Spain by sea from January to June 10, compared to only 4,161 during the first half of 2017, and 8,100 during the whole year of 2016.
“What we can see now is a shifting of routes as migration is a fact and can not be stopped by fences and walls,” Neugebauer added, warning that Italy’s stance will have a devastating impact. “The lack of rescue capacities we face now on the central Mediterranean route will make the journey more dangerous and increase mortality,” he said.
Steier says that Mission Lifeline will continue regardless of Salvini’s comments. “We are saving people’s lives – and to say something negative about that says a lot about a person.”