The first rays of dawn were just breaking through when the small speck was spotted in the Mediterranean’s turquoise waters off eastern Spain. It was the first of a three-vessel flotilla that for the past week has captured the world’s attention, triggering harsh words from European leaders, threatening to fracture alliances, provoking upheaval and illustrating how immigration, a polarizing topic in the U.S., is becoming the most fiery issue in Europe.
Shunned by other Mediterranean countries, the Aquarius rescue boat, accompanied by two Italian military vessels, was finally, after a week on the high seas, headed for port in Valencia, an elegant city famous for oranges, paella and its annual festival of Las Fallas, in which oversized effigies are set alight, covering the city in smoke. This weekend it was the site of a raucous gay pride festival with concerts and celebrations in all corners and spilling into the square in front of City Hall, which for days had been festooned with a banner: “Valencia: City of Refugees!”
On board the three ships were refugees from 26 countries escaping kidnappers, blackmailers, torturers, and groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram as well as poverty and chronic food shortages. Many of the 630 onboard, including 100 children and teenagers and seven pregnant women, had come from West and sub-Saharan Africa, some trekking for weeks, some paying to cross in open trucks, having been recruited by shady agencies for nonexistent jobs. Some of those who set out on the journey died along the way as they crossed deserts where temperatures sometimes reach 120 degrees.