A very familiar story is currently playing out in the Mediterranean Sea. A cargo ship which has rescued asylum seekers from sinking boats is being blocked by an Italian coast guard vessel from sailing to Italy to offload the rescued people.
Italy is suggesting that Malta should take the people, while Malta says Italian territory is closer. Meanwhile, the people who have been rescued are stuck on the crowded deck of the cargo ship and there are reports that the health of some of them is deteriorating.
A Turkish-owned cargo ship that plucked about 140 migrants from two sinking boats in the Mediterranean Sea two days ago is being blocked from sailing to Italy by an Italian coast guard vessel, the owner of the cargo ship said Saturday.
Pinar Erdogdu, whose family owns the ship, said the crew had informed her that many of the migrants were in need of urgent medical attention and crowded onto the deck of the ship in rough seas. “All I want is to help these people so they don’t die,” Ms. Erdogdu said in a telephone interview from Istanbul.
“This is a cargo vessel,” she said. “There is no closed space, there are not enough blankets and not enough bathrooms.”
But Cmdr. Cosimo Nicastro of the Italian coast guard said on Saturday that the migrants were “in good health,” although “they are a little worn,” according to The Associated Press. The coast guard had taken two Italian doctors to visit the ship, he said.
The ship is in international waters between Malta and Italy.
One notable difference from the Tampa scenario is that Italy and Malta alone had 38 000 asylum seekers arrive by sea last year. And as far as I know, despite the current stand off, no one is suggesting elite armed military personnel need to board and take over the vessel.
While Australia’s ‘problem’ with asylum seekers arriving by boat is minuscule in comparison to most other countries, this incident is a reminder that it is a worldwide issue. Pretending that it can be effectively dealt with in Australia by putting up walls or by treating boat arrivals so badly that others won’t want to come is not going to do us any good, (nor the asylum seekers obviously).
I think it is also well past time for us to stop addressing the issue as a ‘security’ or ‘border protection’ issue. Asylum seekers do not ‘threaten’ our borders, as they announce themselves on arrival – they do not try to sneak in and live in the community undetected. Nor can they realistically be said to be a security problem No one amongst the literally millions of people who enter Australia each year is checked more thoroughly on health, security, quarantine and general personal bona fides than asylum seekers arriving by boat.
However, given that a basic thing like not using the inaccurate and pejorative label of “illegal migrants” seems to be too hard, I doubt there’s much chance of dropping the labels suggesting this is a major security issue.
The level of political, media and (presumably) public interest in the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat really is quite extraordinary. As many people have noted in recent weeks, the number of asylum seekers who arrive by plane is far greater, but there is next to zero interest in them or any suggestions they are a threat to our security.
Given the level of disproportionate hysteria that seems to occur around the issue of asylum seekers in boats, having a more informed and reasoned debate about better ways to deal with the issue will be no easy task.
Perhaps the first thing we all need to do is recognise that we can never expect to fully solve this very vexed and difficult issue. But what we can and should do is try to improve the way that Australia, our region and the world as a whole handles it – rather than pretend we just fence ourselves off from it.
UPDATE (23/4): The New York Times reports on the resolution of the situation.
At the end of a voyage that left a pregnant woman dead and others sick, the migrants arrived on two Italian vessels and were escorted to a refugee center, said Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in Rome. Many were expected to request asylum.
“We are so happy that this situation is over,” Ms. Boldrini said by telephone from Rome. “Sometimes we get three weeks of Ping-Pong between Italy and Malta. This time it was fairly short.”