At first glance, it was the same old story: hundreds of migrants fleeing poverty and conflict in the Middle East and Africa try to sail to Europe and a new life. Except, this time was different. As the Aquarius headed towards Italy with its cargo of human misery, permission to dock was declined. Malta also said no. This came as something of a shock: since 2016, the Aquarius alone made 107 port calls in Italy, without being turned away.
At the time of writing, many of the passengers had been transferred to Italian naval vessels, which were escorting the Aquarius to the Spanish port of Valencia. It’s expected to arrive before the weekend, bringing an end to the drama that has played out across the world’s news. The impact on future migrant flows is anything but clear. What seems likely, though, is that it will be markedly different from what’s happened up till now.
In the chart above, we can see all 85 journeys taken over the past two-and-a-half years by the Aquarius, a ship used by the charity SOS Méditerranée. You’ll note that it seldom – if ever – crosses the purple line demarcating Libya’s territorial waters, 12 nautical miles off the coast.
The Aquarius isn’t alone. The screenshot below shows what it – and other search-and-rescue (SAR) ships – have been doing over the past 12 months, when at least six SAR vessels made around 150 visits to Libyan waters. That’s equivalent to 25 visits per vessel, or roughly one visit per vessel every two weeks. It’s a bit of a mess to look at, but it shows the patterns-of-life of the vessels involved in rescuing migrants off the coast of Libya.
The Aquarius itself has been rather busy over the past 60 days, making eight trips from Libyan waters into those off the coast of Italy, and calling five times at Catania, and once at each of the ports of Trapani, Messina and Pozzallo (see below).
What happens after the Aquarius safely docked in Spain is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the Aquarius and her sister SAR vessels will in future head straight for Spain? Maybe the EU will strike a deal with Italy or Malta or France to share the burden of taking in migrants? One thing’s for certain: the patterns we’ve seen of SAR vessels picking up migrants off the coast of Libya and ferrying them to Italy will change but they won’t end: they’ll simply adapt to whatever rules and regulations are now being enforced.