“Ocean Viking”: why migrant rescue boats in the Mediterranean never dock in France

The political parties are torn on the question of the reception on the French coasts of theocean viking, Wednesday, November 9. The NGO SOS Méditerranée boat was heading to Sardinia and Corsica early Wednesday evening with 234 migrants on board, after the far-right Italian government refused to welcome it to one of the ports of Sicily. So far, no rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea has docked in France with shipwrecked people on board since the start of the migration crisis. This can be explained by several reasons.

A matter of distance

It’s first “a question of proximity” explains Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, research director at the CNRS, specialist in international migration. France is further from the central Mediterranean : “This is the most important crossing point for immigration in the Mediterranean, explains the researcher, Most passages are between Libya and Italy or between Morocco and Spain. France is not on the direct line of these arrivals.” It is in this area that rescue boats chartered by NGOs cross to come to the aid of migrants, who are frequently victims of shipwrecks.

These boats also often face emergency situations. “If people are sick on board, if women have to give birth, etc., it must be the closest to where the boat is.” According to maritime law, the nearest safe port must accommodate the boat. The Mediterranean is divided into SAR (“search and rescue”) zones, where search and rescue services must be provided by a nearby state. This is why it is most often Italy, Spain and sometimes Malta that welcome the boats.

Map of SAR ("search and rescue") zones in the Mediterranean.  The densest migratory routes are between the coasts of Libya and Tunisia and Malta and Sicily.  (SOS MEDITERRANEE)

A political question

As today, France has already said it is ready to welcome boats on its coasts. This was the case for theAquarius in 2018. Italy’s Matteo Salvini had similarly refused to open his ports. The former communist minister Jean-Claude Gayssot, had then proposed to dock in the port of Sète (Hérault). Corsica also at the time had indicated that its “ports were available for emergency humanitarian aid”, by the voice of Gilles Simeoni, president of the executive council of Corsica. A proposal renewed in recent days by the same Gilles Simeoni. “But France had made a lot of difficulties”remember Catherine Wihtol of Wenden. Spain had spoken more quickly and theAquarius finally landed in Valencia. “The left-wing government in power in Spain was more open to welcoming irregular migrants.”

France is therefore not the first destination for rescue boats. Only exception, theEast Sea, February 17, 2001, the first “wild landing” of migrants on the French coast. The rusty bulk carrier had run aground on a beach in the Var, near Saint-Raphaël. It was carrying 900 Kurdish refugees. “An impossible arrival today with reinforced border controls”believes Virginie Guiraudon, dresearch director at the CNRS, working at the Center for European Studies at Sciences Po Paris.

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France second host country for asylum seekers

Although the boats do not dock on the French coasts, France remains “the second country, behind Germany, to receive the most asylum seekers in Europe”emphasizes Catherine Wihtol of Wenden. On June 10, 2022, under the French presidency, a majority of the Member States of the European Union adopted a reform of the European migration policy intended to help the so-called “first entry” States. The “voluntary solidarity mechanism” plans to distribute asylum seekers to other countries. The objective is to achieve 10,000 relocations in the first year. Among them, France, Germany and Luxembourg.

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