In early June, the MV Aquarius, a search-and-rescue ship run by a migrant-aid group, found itself stuck between Italy and Malta with nowhere to go. On board were 629 migrants who had been rescued from rubber dinghies in the Mediterranean.
But neither country wanted to let them in.
After a days-long standoff, Spain finally acquiesced and opened its doors, redirecting the boat to Valencia. On Twitter, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, an immigration hard-liner who says Italy has carried too much of the burden of the Europe's migration crisis, called the redirection of the boat a “victory.”
“This was a first important signal that Italy cannot go on alone supporting this huge weight,” Salvini said at a news conference after Spain agreed to take in the ship.
As The Washington Post's Chico Harlan reported in June, that tense episode shed light on how Italy's new populist, anti-immigration government could influence the years-long debate in Europe over which countries should take in migrants and how their asylum claims should be handled. According to European rules, refugees applying for asylum must do so in the country where they are first registered — a situation that does not suit front-line countries such as Italy and Greece, where many migrants first land.
On Tuesday, as part of a regional effort to deal with migrants, the European Commission offered to pay countries up to $7,000 per migrant they take in, hoping to persuade more countries to accept migrants rather than simply turn them away. Brussels also offered to pay for the hundreds of staff members needed to manage centers where migrants and asylum seekers could be processed to avoid having them travel through Europe to secondary destinations.
Italy quickly rebuffed the suggestion.
“We aren’t asking for charity handouts. Every asylum-seeker costs the Italian taxpayer between 40,000 and 50,000 euros,” Salvini said after the offer was announced. “Brussels, they can keep their charity for themselves.”
The commission's latest suggestion that it pay countries to deal with migrants' arrivals follows an all-night summit in June, which led to an agreement that the European Union would help establish centers to process asylum claims. (Some of those centers could potentially be in Africa.) E.U. diplomats are expected to more formally discuss Tuesday's offer this week, even if Salvini has already dismissed it.
Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe program, said that “it's not really about the money for the Italians.”
“It's about their desire along with a few other like-minded E.U. member states to shift the debate and shift the paradigm of how Europe is dealing with migration,” Rathke said. “I think it's unlikely that a particular level of compensation is going to change the approach or perspective of this Italian government.”
Salvini, for his part, made that much clear on Tuesday.
“We don’t want money,” he told reporters. “We want dignity.”