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La llegada a Valencia del barco Aquarius, en el que viajan 106 del total de 629 inmigrantes rescatados en el mar y que España ha decidido acoger, ha generado un gran despliegue mediático y político en Europa, incapaz de poner solución a la crisis migratoria. Foto: A.Rodés. 
The migrants, mainly from Africa, were welcomed by a team of more than 2,000 people, including 1,000 Red Cross volunteers and 470 translators, amid a lot of media expectation. Photo: A.Rodés. 

Aquarius ship migrants disembark in Spain after week-long odyssey

The 629 migrants rescued while trying to cross from Africa to Europe began disembarking in Spain on Sunday after a rough week that saw Italy turn away the…

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Marc Carbonell looks tired. He has spent all Sunday morning at the docks of the port of Valencia, Spain, under the summer sun, attending to the dozens of journalists that came to cover the arrival of the Aquarius, a humanitarian ship with 629 migrants onboard, most of them Africans, who were rescued a week ago when their boats and rafts shipwrecked off the coast of Libya when they were trying to reach Europe.

Carbonell, a diver, is a member of the team of SOS Mediterranée, the French NGO that manages the ship Aquarius, where he himself was embarked until three days ago. At the docks, he contemplates with amazement the political and media deployment that the Aquarius arrival in Valencia has arisen. The Spanish government announced it would welcome the boat after Italy decided to close its ports to the ship, full of undocumented immigrants, and subsequently France. In the midst of the rift between the two European countries, the recently invested Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist, took the occasion to announce Spain would receive the Aquarius and the two ships of the Italian Navy where the immigrants have been distributed. Thus, on this sunny and hot Sunday morning, while the European Union is still unable to unify its common migration policies, an unusual deployment of more than 2,000 people, including a thousand Red Cross volunteers, 400 accompanying translators and around 500 Public Health and National Police officers, welcomed the large contingent of immigrants, mostly of Sub-Saharan or North African origin, according to the Red Cross.

"After so many days onboard, they do not know much what awaits them in Spain, they are disoriented," says Carbonell, sitting on the ground next to other members of the SOS Mediterranée rescue team. On the quay, the operation to disembark the 230 immigrants aboard the "Dattilo", the first of the three ships to reach the port of Valencia, has begun. A total of 629 undocumented immigrants, including a hundred children and several pregnant women, landed Sunday in Valencia.

"Most of them show good health conditions, despite the long and rough journey," said Rafael Gandia, president of the Spanish Red Cross, responsible for coordinating the reception of the immigrants.

"It's impressive to see them getting off the boat so cheerful and smiling, as if they didn't expect this huge reception," added Fátima Cabello, one of the Red Cross volunteers working at the medical assistance camp deployed in the port. Cabello explained that when the immigrants of the "Dattilo" reached Valencia, they began to sing a song together to celebrate the end of a week-long odyssey at sea, waiting anxiously for a European port to give them access. Fortunately, the conditions onboard the Aquarius or the Dattilo are better than in the boats and rafts that immigrants use to cross the Mediterranean. These are usually rudimentary vessels, overloaded with people and vulnerable to shipwreck at the least climactic mishap. To get on the boat, the prices can be very high, and prices vary according to the place where they will be seated. 

'Women and children usually sit in the middle of the boat because it is safer. But it is also the place with the highest risk of suffocation or getting burned with gasoline," said Carbonell, protecting himself from the sun with a cap.

A way out of hell

On the other hand, Carbonell noted that most of the rescued immigrants have been for a long time, some more than a year, locked up in detention centers in Libya, where all kinds of human rights violations are committed.

"Many immigrants from other African countries come to Libya thinking it is a rich country when the country is immersed in a severe political and economic crisis," Carbonell explained. "Locked in detention centers, which are overpopulated, they suffer many health problems, especially cardio-respiratory problems," said the lifeguard of SOS Mediterranée. "In addition to all this, they have to deal with all kinds of violations of basic human rights - rapes, human trafficking, etc. "Many do not think about reaching Europe, but simply to flee from hell, to quit Libya by all means," he affirmed.

In fact, Carbonell explained that some migrants, when they see the humanitarian rescue team approaching in the middle of the sea, "some think we are Libyan and panic."

Once migrants are rescued and safe onboard, part of his work as a member of SOS Mediterranée is to make them understand that their intention is to help them, provide them with medical and psychological assistance and ensure that they arrive in a European port. Once on land, SOS Mediterranée informs the local authorities about each case in particular - the team writes a follow-up on their health conditions and family situation - and then the regional authorities are in charge of deciding the future of the immigrant.

"The case of the Aquarius is very unusual, the deployment is much bigger than we are used to working," said Carbonell, looking from far away at the Red Cross camp where they currently are tending to the newly arrived immigrants. There are 400 translators working there, mostly Spanish to English and French, the languages most heard among African immigrants descending from the boats, as well as Arabic, explained Vicente Iranzo, one of the volunteer translators. Carbonell said that one of the things that nobody imagines is that many of these immigrants rescued at sea are people "like us, people with studies, middle class, who speak English...", he said, remembering that in a previous mission he rescued a Bangladeshi couple, "and she was a nurse and he was a doctor."

In the case of the 629 immigrants of Aquarius, Carbonell does not know exactly their social profile, "but it does not matter, the important thing is that we have saved their lives, which is our obligation, and that is what the Maritime Law dictates," said the aid worker, who regrets that the European Union has not agreed on measures to prevent more people from dying in the Mediterranean. The rejection of Italy and France - two countries that have received thousands of immigrants from the south in recent years - to accept the ship, and the unusual announcement that Spain would, has revealed the serious crisis of immigration policy in Europe, where each country is free to close borders or not, as there is no common European directive.

"On the one hand, we celebrate that the people we have collected at the Aquarius are in a safe place, where they are treated in a dignified manner... but we do so with a concern for the future of rescue operations in the Mediterranean, with the blockades of the European ports, which will force us to rethink the operation. It is undoubtedly a negative event and a fact of more than one chain of retreat that only complicates more and more rescue operations in the Mediterranean," said David Noguera, president of Doctors Without Borders in Spain, which has collaborated with SOS Mediterranée in the rescue tasks. "What happened is a message that forces us all to collective reflection in order to find fairer solutions, more humane, more supportive of the drama of all these people who throw themselves into the sea in the Mediterranean," Noguera added.

Carbonell keeps it more simple: "We only ask for a solution so that people in the Mediterranean cease to die so that this sea does not become a cemetery," said Marc, who before working for SOS Mediterranée collaborated as a diver for environmental and conservation organizations in New Zealand and Southeast Asia. "It is so bad to see how the lives of these 600 people have become a political and mediatized instrument," he concluded, observing the crowd of journalists around him.

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