It was the most shameful piece of news from the past week. Yet it was barely covered. The charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been forced to end its rescue operations in the Mediterranean because of pressure and harassment from European nations, most notably Italy.
“A sustained campaign… to delegitimise, slander and obstruct,” as MSF put it. For the past two months the MSF rescue ship Aquarius has been docked in Marseille after Italian pressure led Panama to revoke the ship’s registration. Last November Italian magistrates accused MSF of illegally dumping toxic waste at ports in southern Italy and ordered Aquarius to be impounded.
What toxic waste? Clothes worn by migrants and food from the journey. The Italian authorities claimed the clothes could be harbouring the HIV virus, playing to old racist tropes about migrants carrying disease. Had Russia or China pursued such a campaign of harassment and intimidation, there would have been an outcry. There has been far more anger at Donald Trump’s use of teargas against migrants at the Mexican border than about EU policies that have led to thousands of deaths.
There is a long history of the EU criminalising rescue efforts. In the past, such actions might have generated outrage. Today there is barely a shrug of the shoulders. Fortress Europe has constructed not just a physical barrier but an emotional one. Migrants have come to be seen less as human beings than so much flotsam and jetsam to be swept away from Europe’s beaches.
So blinded have European authorities become by their obsession with immigration that they have lost the ability to recognise the most basic of obligations to other human beings. A few thousand drowned Africans and Asians every year is, for many, a price worth paying to keep the lid on the immigration debate at home.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist