During a debate last Monday, the head of the LREM electoral list claimed that France has accepted “castaways” from every vessel rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean. However, her presentation of the matter is a little too generous.
“The honour of France”: this is the response of Nathalie Loiseau, head of the République en Marche (LRM) electoral list, to an attack from her counterpart from La France Insoumise (LFI), Manon Aubry, who accused the government of not caring about the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
What she said:
“Every time a boat rescues castaways, it has been the honour of France every time to accept a share of these castaways. This has never been the case with Salvini. Every time it has been the honour of France to organise their reception.”
Why is this questionable
The same story repeats on a regular basis: a boat having saved castaways in the Mediterranean searches, for days, for a port which will accept the migrants, and a country to take responsibility for their reception.
The most famous case was undoubtedly that of the Aquarius, a boat chartered by the NGO SOS Méditerranée and Médicins Sans Frontières. In June 2018, the ship rescued 229 migrants, who joined the 400 already on board. This was far beyond the vessel’s capacity. Malta, then Italy, refused to receive the ship.
France, for its part, criticised the stance taken by Italy… but didn’t receive the ship. According to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the official reason was maritime law: the port of Valencia in Spain being closest to the ship. This, however, was false: Ajaccio and Marseille were in fact the closest ports to the ship’s position.
End of operations for the Aquarius, its flag revoked
In the end, France, following the controversy, accepted 78 refugees of the 630 on board. The same story repeated in September, as Le Monde reported from aboard the ship. According to NGO SOS Méditerranée, the Aquarius, which had already had its Gibraltar flag revoked, lost its Panamanian flag following political pressure from Italy. The ship solicited the help of several countries, including France, with no success. In the absence of any flag, the Aquarius had to call a halt to their operations. Médecins Sans Frontières denounced the “judicial, administrative and political harassment” faced by the NGO leading the rescue operations.
Early in 2019, France accepted 60 migrants from another ship, the Sea Watch, which had faced a similar scenario: the boat had been stuck at sea for several days, with Malta demanding a prior agreement between European countries before they would receive it. While France may have accepted migrants from Mediterranean rescue boats, it is still something of an exaggeration to evoke “national honour”, given the lack of willingness shown by authorities to accept these migrants, even when their situation justified urgency, as was the case with the Aquarius.