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For ‘Aquarius’ migrants, going to Spain is either paradise or punishment

For Algerians and Moroccans, Valencia is not what they had in mind when they chose the Libyan route

Migrants are moved from the ‘Aquarius’ to another boat that will travel to Spain.
Migrants are moved from the ‘Aquarius’ to another boat that will travel to Spain.
On board ‘Aquarius’

“We are so happy. We’re not going back to Libya! We are going to a land of freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of movement, a place with the right to education!” exclaimed an exultant 26-year-old from Sierra Leone named Moses, when he learned that he was being taken to Spain.

But the disclosure that Spain’s new Socialist Party (PSOE) government is taking in the 629 migrants that Italy and Malta turned away does not mean the same thing to all the people aboard the Aquarius. The first reaction was subdued: everyone sat still and scanned the crowd with their eyes, as if to gauge by other migrants’ reaction whether this was good news or bad news.

The first reaction was subdued: everyone sat still and scanned the crowd with their eyes, as if to gauge by other migrants’ reaction whether this was good news or bad news

As soon as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff informed the group of their new destination, a man from the Maghreb region in northern Africa stood up to ask for further details. The Algerians and Moroccans on board were clearly dismayed at the news. Nasser said that he and his colleagues had chosen the Libyan route into Europe – which is long, expensive and very dangerous – because “the border between Morocco and Spain is very tough, and if they catch you they send you back.”

And now, because of a twist of fate, Nasser and his colleagues from North Africa will end up in Spain instead of Italy, a country where more than 13,000 migrants have already been allowed in this year after being plucked out of the Mediterranean. But that was before a populist government with an anti-immigration message took over in Italy.

Naveed Hussain, a 28-year-old from Pakistan, approached this reporter with fear written all over his face. “Will I get deported?” he asked. After spending four years in Libya, where he went through four detention centers (being undocumented is a crime there), Hussain was just about to achieve his dream of reaching Italy. Now, he does not know what will happen to him.

Transfer to other ships

On Tuesday, some of the immigrants on the rescue ship Aquarius were transferred to two vessels operated by Italy’s Navy and Coast Guard. The Aquarius, which was chartered by the aid organizations SOS Mediterranée and MSF, will take 106 migrants to the eastern port city of Valencia – chiefly those who are in need of medical attention, women traveling alone or with children, and their husbands. The remaining 523 immigrants are now on board the Orione and the Dattilo, following instructions received on Tuesday morning.

In an operation that lasted several hours, around 400 men were transferred from the Aquarius to a Coast Guard speedboat, and from there to the two Italian ships that will travel to Valencia with the rescue ship. Some migrants shook hands with the aid workers as they left: “Merci beaucoup,” said an Algerian man, wearing his orange life preserver. Everyone held on to the backpack and blanket that they’d been given on Saturday.

In an operation that lasted several hours, around 400 men were transferred from the Aquarius to a Coast Guard speedboat

Meanwhile, aid workers and sailors went around reminding families to stay together. “Friend, go look for your relatives, your friends, and stay with them,” said Wademer Mischutin, a German aid worker of Russian origin. Telephone numbers were jotted down on slips of cardboard, in case family members should get separated at some point.

Long journey

The humanitarian ship’s captain had refused to sail to Spain with the entire group because of the risks involved in the 1,300-km journey. The captain said he was hoping to set sail on Tuesday night; the trip will take three-and-a-half days if sea conditions are good.

Sea Watch, which is now the only remaining non-profit group rescuing migrants off the coast of Libya, said on Monday that the Italian Navy was going to disembark 937 people rescued by its own ships, and wondered whether the refusal to accept the Aquarius migrants might be “a trick by [Interior Minister Matteo Salvini] at the expense of people at risk.”

For now, at least, the clampdown at Italian ports has not been an effective deterrent. On Tuesday afternoon, a US Navy ship rescued another 41 people and recovered 12 bodies.

The trip to Valencia and back again means that the Aquarius will be outside the rescue zone for at least seven days. “I am very worried because sending the Aquarius so far to disembark, besides delaying the ongoing operation in this area, will also reduce the resources assigned to search and rescue in an area that is in urgent need of them,” said Nicola Stalla, the rescue coordinator on board the humanitarian vessel.

At one point there were over a dozen aid groups performing rescue work in the central Mediterranean, but growing hostility from Italy has reduced their presence to no more than a handful. At least 784 people have drowned since January.

English version by Susana Urra.

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