What next for refugees after the Aquarius fallout?

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Valencia, Spain – When Gima Ayele moved from Ethiopia to Valencia, he found the port city so hospitable that it remains his home 10 years later. 

So when the 49-year-old industrial engineer heard that the MV Aquarius would arrive on Sunday, he went to the harbour to welcome the refugees and migrants on board.

The search and rescue boat, run by charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), had held the world’s attention as it was stranded in the water for 36 hours between Italy and Malta, carrying 630 weak and tired refugees and migrants.

The ship – which has saved 30,000 people in 170 search and rescue operations since 2016 – had been banned from entering both countries after Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new, far-right interior minister, refused the boat docking rights.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez ended the cruel stalemate by offering safe harbour.

As the ship sailed in after its arduous 1,500km journey, Ayele and his family joined a demonstration by opponents of Spain’s migrant detention camps system.

A banner by the local government hovered above the rally, welcoming the city’s guests in five languages.

“[It’s important] to keep up their morale [and] to give thanks to the people of Spain and Valencia and those workers at risk on the ships,” Ayele told Al Jazeera.

“This is essential for humans. You don’t leave a man on the sea … first, you rescue and then you will see how you want to help the person.”

Volunteers with SOS Mediterranee, which operates the MV Aquarius jointly with MSF, watch as the ship enters Valencia harbour [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

In the five days after Spain intervened in the political debacle, which saw European leaders criticising one another’s failure in the refugee crisis, the government of Valencia rapidly deployed Operation Mediterranean Hope, a massive coordinated response to care for the needs of those arriving on the Aquarius and two Italian coastguard and navy vessels.

More than 1,000 Red Cross volunteers were on hand to offer immediate medical and psychological evaluation, and 400 interpreters were available to those onboard, who come from 31 countries, to assist them through the asylum process. 

The government of Valencia said it received 3,888 calls and emails from the public offering support and solidarity.

Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, oversaw the medical response.


“I would have hoped that welcoming refugees should be such a normal thing to do that would not even attract so much attention and media,” said Sy, looking towards hundreds of journalists lining the harbour’s edge.

“I hope there will come a time when … we’ll have less people that have to fear for their lives and then flee, and when they come to the countries of destination they will be supported in a normal way without any sensation.”

Of the 630 refugees and migrants, 144 were taken to hospitals, with at least five requiring prolonged treatment. 

Buses transferred people to reception centres around the country, where they will be registered and begin the asylum claims process. 

Around half will be moved to France, which has agreed to take any who would prefer to seek asylum there, said Carmen Calvo, Spain’s deputy prime minister.

Gima Ayele, who moved from Ethiopia to Valencia 10 years ago, and his family welcome the MV Aquarius [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

Spain is treating this particular Aquarius journey as a special case, and offering the rescued migrants 45 days to remain in the country before they have to start any legal process – a concession not granted to the more than 1,400 other migrants who have arrived since Friday. 

But when they enter the Spanish asylum system, they will be no different from the 13,000 others who have arrived in the country so far this year, potentially facing delays of months, detention at migrant centres and eventual deportation.

Sanchez, of the centre-left Socialist Party, has made overtures towards softening the country’s immigration policies since he became prime minister earlier this month, such as ordering the barbed wire on border fences surrounding the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa to be removed.

“It seems that they are willing to change the ‘Fortress Europe’ policy that some of the European countries, Spain among them, have been leading, towards a policy more focused in welcoming refugees and saving lives,” Ana Gomez, spokesperson for Amnesty International Spain, told Al Jazeera. “But we will need to see the real facts, and the way this is developed.”

However, government officials have been eager to stress that the Aquarius was a humanitarian issue, and does not mark a major policy change, careful to avoid the scorn of the country’s right-wing press, which has accused it of encouraging new arrivals.

Far-right backlash

Not everyone in Valencia was happy to be a part of the Aquarius story. 

The evening before its arrival, as the finishing touches were being made to reception facilities, members of fringe ultra-nationalist group Espana 2000, joined by some Valencia Football Club fans, held a protest, chanting “Viva Espana” and raising banners reading “We don’t want refugees”.

“We’re trying to defend the city of Valencia because it’s being invaded by immigrants and refugees and there are a lot of people that are hungry from Valencia,” said Juan, a regular at Espana 2000 events. “Immigrants are coming here and they have salaries and employment and we don’t. And that’s not justice.

“There are a lot of people who understand why were are here.”

Members of Espana 2000 protest the arrival of the MV Aquarius at Valencia port [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

Pamphlets at his feet claimed Muslims do not use toilet paper and listed local businesses the group accuses of being “possible collaborators with Islam”.

This subject of irregular migration is expected to dominate the June 28-29 EU summit in Brussels.

Member states will seek to establish “regional disembarkation platforms” – or processing centres – in North Africa to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants before they attempt to cross the Mediterranean, according to draft statements.

The proposal would alleviate the burden placed on border states such as Italy and Greece by the controversial Dublin regulations, which require asylum seekers to be processed in the country they first arrive but could have perilous consequences for migrants and refugees who already face horrific conditions in detention centres in the region.

As for the Aquarius itself, after two days of recuperation, the crew is setting sail from Valencia. It will travel back towards the search and rescue zone off the coast of Libya, where it will resume its life-saving missions, whether Italy and Malta’s ports will open or not.

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